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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Barak Obama

The Fires of Leadership

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“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”

Benjamin Franklin

In the last two weeks, in various venues, the name of Benjamin Franklin has come up a number of times as a way of explaining some research or circumstance. That his name still comes up so often really does indicate the kind of impact he had on society with his forward looking ideas and actions.

One occasion where his name was mentioned was a lecture I attended where a categorization scheme of the various types of leaders was reviewed. It was a great lecture even though I disagreed with some of the premises and conclusions stated. This talk by Mike Mumford covered the notion that leaders tend to fall into one of 3 distinct categories.  A leader can be charismatic, an ideologue or pragmatic based on this body of research, and there were some interesting characteristics ascribed to these various types of leaders. The 3 types of leadership could each be described on a separate scale of effectiveness, so that you could have effective charismatics, ideologues or pragmatists at one end of the scale, and ineffective ones at the other.  Much of this research can trace its roots back to the work done by Max Weber, a German sociologist (1864-1920).

A charismatic leader is one that has a “vision” of the future and while they may be short on details on how to get there, they are good at persuading their followers that they should be followed. Interestingly, the research indicates that charismatic leaders create schisms among the larger population, with one segment buying into their “vision” and joining up while another segment really dislikes the charisma and the vision and are vehemently opposed. Charismatic leaders can generate substantial followings but can fall prey to narcissism, convinced to their inner core that they have the right answers and they are on a crusade to convince others to see the light. This narcissism can fuel the abuses that you see among some leaders in terms of the rich rewards they indulge themselves with, because in their mind they of course deserve it, since no one else has the vision and can accomplish what they are doing.

An ideologue is a leader who tends to live in the past, wanting to take society or an organization back to its fundamentals, or the good-old-days, reverting to a concept or an idea of what the past was like. They often do not want to repeat past mistakes but want to capture, from their point of view, the best of what has worked previously. In addition to the obvious ideologues that run some religious groups, political organizations and terrorists organizations around the world, you can see ideologues among serial entrepreneurs. You see entrepreneurs are creating something new and they are doing so by making use of previous lessons that they have learned, not wanting to repeat past mistakes that may have led to previous failures. Ideologues tend to generate smaller followings that charismatic leaders.

And then you have pragmatics. These are people who are driven by the need to get things done and people follow them because they are perceived as someone who can, in fact, get things done. Pragmatists are willing to compromise to bring as many people to the table as possible, but can be seen as comprising ideals in order to do so. This notion of compromise can generate anger or apathy among some followers for “not living up to promised made”. Pragmatics live in the present, analyzing what needs to be done to solve current problems and getting-on-with-it, having less emphasis on future visions of grandeur or a need to return to the good-old-days orientation when things were done right.

When these differing styles of leadership interact with each other or attempt to negotiate, conflict can arise when contrasting leadership styles are present. For instance, if one head of state is a pragmatist, negotiating with another head of state who is an ideologue, about how to resolve a conflict, successful negotiations may be difficult to achieve.

Within this schema, Benjamin Franklin was characterized as a pragmatist, as was President Obama. I had some difficulty with those classifications. I could see how they were arrived at, but the notion that these two gentlemen did not have the future vision thing going on just did not resonate with me. Perhaps I am in error.

Benjamin Franklin it was noted was a problem solver. One example given was that he was the originator of the notion of backing US currency with land, as gold and silver were in short supply within the new nation. He saw a problem, in this case how to generate confidence in a new currency, and he fixed it by having the currency backed up by land.

Benjamin Franklin was also the originator of the first volunteer fire department. He saw a problem, the way fires were being fought, and set out to fix it as a pragmatist would. Here is his description of the problem. “Soon after it [a fire] is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing fire.” But goodwill and amateur firefighters were not enough. Franklin suggested a “Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend all Fires with it whenever they happen.” ( But in my mind fixing the problem required a vision of the future regarding what firefighting could and should accomplish and I would suggest that leaders would not necessarily fall cleanly into only one leadership style or another.

Another example of his future leanings and vision, if you will, comes from his desire to reduce the risk of fire by arguing that “chimney sweeps should be licensed by the city and be held responsible for their work”. He saw a positive role for regulation and also what oversight accountability could accomplish. Yes, solving current problems, but in my mind with a vision of the future. Through his work and urgings Philadelphia, which once greatly feared fires, became one of the world’s safest cities from a fire damage perspective.

Fast forward to the present day, “Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee. Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat.” (MSNBC) I have to wonder what this response by the fire department says about their leadership and what Benjamin Franklin would have said about a fire department which let a house burn down. Now there is a lightning rod topic for you. Positively crackling with electricity.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Ordinary Things

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As we seek to understand extraordinary events we would be well served by examining what has become ordinary.

Ordinary things provide comfort, for as they become familiar parts of our lives they can help us achieve a sense of consistency, a sense of control, a sense of predictability. We are creatures of habit, even if for some the habit is to never do the same thing twice. We seek out similar experiences to ones we have had in the past. Some seek the rush of adrenaline from the thrill of trying new things and others the comfort of unchanging routine. For many the morning cup of coffee, tea or juice served just so, creates a sense of being on track, of not having to deal with something out of the ordinary first thing in the morning. We settle into our routines. But we can’t afford to become complacent about our routines.  Complacency can lead to obsolescence, to overlooking risk, to not seeing the world as it truly is right before your eyes.

Sometimes when you look at the people on the edges of society, people who operate beyond the limits of what most of us would consider ordinary behavior, the edge itself becomes a magnifying glass, providing insights that we might normally overlook. For instance, the swindler who is caught, on one of those exposé TV shows, in a complex web of lies while trying to scam people, sees the behavior as acceptable because “everyone lies”. To the scam artist it has become ordinary to cheat, to lie, and to steal. It has become part of the normal way of conducting oneself.  To change someone’s behavior you must change what is accepted as “ordinary”.

The work environment is no different, and what we consider to be ordinary becomes part of the normal course of events, the way we conduct ourselves and our business. For a manager, as an example, an ordinary thing may involve shaving that budget just a few percent each year. It becomes normal to cut on an annual basis in an attempt to become more efficient and to increase bottom-line performance. And while each cut by itself may seem minimal, over the course of time they may add up to an extraordinary draconian situation. It would not surprise me at all if the managers responsible for the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform felt those pressures to cut just a little bit here and there to increase efficiency, to bring that well in on-time and under budget. Cutting simply becomes part of the normal operating routine, it becomes ordinary. Yet not pushing one’s performance can lead to complacency and the risk of a competitor coming along and making you and your organization obsolete. Leveling the playing field by putting into place minimum standards of “ordinary” is necessary to break that cycle.

But there is a balance that must be struck. That balance is between maximizing current performance (operating most efficiently) while at the same time creating future potential for success (operating in a fashion that leads to other and new opportunity). If the balance swings too far one way or the other the organization and all of it constituencies are at risk. An organization that monitors itself with respect to that balance, adjusting and correcting imbalances that occur can achieve higher levels of performance.

Ordinary things are found in and can help interpret extraordinary circumstances. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated an inventory was conducted of the contents of his pockets. You might wonder what the 16th president of the United States, the gifted leader who gave us the Gettysburg address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the continuance of the United States itself, had in his pockets at the time of his death. What things would this man, whose achievements are viewed as extraordinary carry around on his person? The inventory produced two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note (a souvenir from the recently visited and captured Confederate capital) and nine newspaper clippings. He was carrying ordinary things expecting nothing more than a pleasant evening at the theater.

On the other hand, a very ordinary 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with 133,000 miles on it just sold for $26,437.50, a sum far greater than book value. This ordinary vehicle commands such a price because it was once the personal car of the 44th president of the United States, Barak Obama. It is an ordinary car to which an extraordinary value is ascribed due to its provenance and the person who paid that amount certainly expects the car to at a minimum hold its value if not to increase in value substantially. I have to add here that I too drive a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee with only 89,000 miles on it, with good rubber, and I would accept somewhat less than $26,000 for it.

Listening to music, a walk in the park, a ride on the train, cutting the grass, taking the family out for dinner, are all examples of what some would say are quite ordinary behavior. But what we define as ordinary not only changes over time but is affected by changing standards, by geography, by economic conditions, by culture and status among other factors. My child is lucky enough to get vaccinated against a whole host of childhood diseases, vaccinations that other children in other parts of the world will forego. What is ordinary for her would be extraordinary for others. Some things that you might view as extraordinary, if it is happening to you, say removal of a gall bladder, or the repair of a hernia, are quite ordinary for the surgeon who performs similar operations almost daily. Sometimes it is very difficult to see how an extraordinary event for yourself, like a graduation, a promotion, a marriage, the birth of a child, a diagnosis of cancer, can be quite ordinary for observers to that event from a more dispassionate vantage point.

And if you’ll indulge me, if we take it to a higher plane, while we may all be ordinary, each and every one of us nothing more than flesh and blood, we are all extraordinary in that we are all, each and every one of us, made up of star stuff. Each and every atom in our bodies first came into being in the heart of a star and was released from that heart upon the death of the star in an explosive nova. The early universe you see contained only lighter elements such as helium and hydrogen. Other heavier elements of which we consist (e.g. carbon, oxygen, iron) began to be synthesized only after the first generation of stars coalesced and ignited the fusion process at their cores. That stellar fusing process created the very atoms of our being. When those first generation stars exploded the heavier elements were released, and made available for the earth to form and for life itself to come into being. While we at times may feel quite ordinary, our origins are clearly extraordinary.

Extraordinary events are oftentimes surrounded and caused by what has become standard or ordinary in terms of how people behave. And different people have differing definitions of what is ordinary. Finding out what that definition consists of can lead to insights into their behavior and consequent events. In some corners, corruption and bribery have become ordinary, in other corners the desire to squeeze out a bit more profit drives what is accepted as ordinary behavior, and in other corners it is standard for people to go way above and beyond what others would consider ordinary to be in service of those who have less than what they do. We do have the ability to change the definition of ordinary, each and every one of us. We do it all the time. All we have to do is something extraordinary and then make it routine.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Creating Confidence & The Long Island Murder

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On Long Island, in a neighborhood not all that far from NYC, there was a murder this month. In fact it was not so much of a murder as it was an old style lynching carried out by those with a mob mentality, a gang of high school boys who took sport in torturing their fellow human beings, viewing it as a pleasurable activity. They routinely hunted Latinos, shooting them with BB guns, jumping them and punching them as they drove around. This time, their sport led to the fatal stabbing and the death of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, simply because he was Latino and easy prey. NYC that bastion of liberalism, where we are supposed to be more tolerant of people’s differences, where we take pride in our live-and-let-live attitude regarding how people live their lives, how could something like this happen here? It could happen anywhere. But that is not an excuse as much as it is a warning. As terrible as that crime was, another crime is now being committed and that crime is a failure of leadership in a time of crisis.    

Nothing tests leadership more than crisis. Crisis represents an opportunity for leadership to shine or for it to fail miserably. Sometimes, but not always, leaders can simply muddle through, surviving the crisis simply because the severity of the issues lessen and not because of any direct actions they take. Suffolk County, where this crime took place, is run by a form of government that has a country executive, Steve Levy. Mr. Levy is of the opinion that the blame for the crime rests partly with the family, friends and acquaintances of the gang members for allowing them to pursue their sport. For him, blame rests with others and not with those in authority. But what created the atmosphere whereby this pastime was viewed as an acceptable sport?  Mr. Levy has a record of immigration enforcement, and in fact tried to use the local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The effect on the immigrants both legal and illegal was to turn them into victims with no options of redress. They could not go to the police, for they would immediately be suspected of being criminals themselves. They became victims without a voice. The evidence for this is clear, as now that the murder has been committed, a tidal wave of unreported crimes against the immigrant community is now being reported.

That along with other policies gave the gang a green light and set the stage for a lack of confidence within the immigrant community that officials would be there to protect rather than harm. It made officials including the police force assume roles similar to those that officials and police took as Europe lurched toward WWII, herding up the “undesirables”. In that kind of environment everyone is guilty rather than innocent and with unnecessary mass edicts, induced fear is the order of the day. Suffolk County under the leadership of Mr. Levy has an opportunity to break with the past and to create confidence in the system from the perspective of community members, create confidence in leadership, and create confidence that the future will be better than the past. How might they go about this?      

John F. Kennedy in a cold war speech in Berlin proclaimed, “…All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” Kennedy’s proclamation, “I am a Berliner” demonstrated his solidarity and empathy with the people of Berlin who were being isolated by the Soviet blockade of the city. His speech was aimed at both the Soviets to demonstrate his resolve but also at the citizens of Berlin to increase their confidence that they would not simply be left to their own devices, but rather that we all stood together with them. But words are words, and action is action, Kennedy followed up his words with concrete actions that demonstrated to the people of Berlin that he meant what he said and that the confidence that he asked them to have was justified. Latinos who are hunted for sport in Suffolk County, New York? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with the system that we have let evolve to the point where such a thing could happen? Is it not too much to ask all of us to join with the Latino community and proclaim “Soy un Latino”? But now we need to follow up those words with deeds. The confidence of the Latino community and of every other minority community in Suffolk County has been shredded. How can it be put back together?

(There is an urban legend that says that due to a coincidence of terms, that Kennedy when addressing the crowd in Berlin actually said, “I am a jelly donut”, as a Berliner was the name of a popular breakfast pastry. Upon verification and with some closer inspection, given the context, this does not seem accurate, but rather some in the media at the time simply having fun with a play on words. Even in the face of extreme anxiety and worry over the Soviet blockade there was humor.)

Creating Confidence, is a process that looks at how entities and individuals, (e.g. public, private, governmental, community, NGO’s, teachers, physicians, etc.) can create confidence within the populations with which they interact. Creating Confidence also provides a framework whereby crises of confidence can be addressed and remedied. Creating Confidence is strongly linked to the notions regarding how to increase the perception that individuals have regarding their efficacy, doing away with responses that arise from a learned helplessness response and increasing feelings of empowerment, and an internal locus of control among people. Creating Confidence requires change at both the institutional level, creating well regarded processes and products that are aligned with stated intentions and those that are aligned with the issues of the day, and change at the personal level, creating a sense of ability on the part of the individual to be able to deal with the situation and an avenue for redress should the existing system be felt to be inadequate.

On a generic level, the Creating Confidence framework:


Internal External
Institutional/Organizational Improving internal processes and procedures, building a track record of success, having checks and balances in place, being well-run and effective Reflecting current issues and needs, being seen in a  positive frame, having products and/or services that are needed/helpful, being better than the alternatives
Personal Enabling individuals to thrive and prosper within the system/institution/organization, educating them on how to use the available resources, providing enabling structure and processes, creating a sense of fairness and equality   Providing alternative pathways, should institution/system path be seen as failing, an ombudsman or escalation process, transparency to the individual but also to the larger public enabling media and watchdog scrutiny

The impact of Creating Confidence is enhanced by thinking of what actions should be taken within this structured framework. In the case of the county executive, confidence can be thought of as having 2 dimensions, an institutional or systemic dimension and a personal dimension, each of those having an internal and external component.

 Issues to be addressed potentially within Suffolk County within this framework include:    

Organizational Internal – eliminate bureaucracy, do away with any non-responsive legacy systems, create an empathetic system one that does away with as much of the power inequality between the groups as possibly, ensure that disciplinary actions are taken on staff who violate agreed upon standards and regulation, create a well-run efficient system and establish a track record of fairness, proper treatment and protection for all community members. Leaders must demonstrate:

  • Competence – being clear about the mission of the organization, setting direction, being seen as a leader, being viewed as competent and completing what needs to be done
  • Compassion – an empathic response, displaying a genuine concern for people and what they are going through
  • Collaboration – seeking and obtaining the cooperation of all relevant parties in order to help each other and the organization, this is enabled by equalizing power relationships between the groups
  • Communication – disseminating relevant and accurate information, even if it means admitting that some things are unknown, you cannot over-communicate
  • Contribution Recognition – giving credit to those who help, sacrifice and contribute

(The 5 C’s first appeared in Saltzman, Reichman and Hyland, Leading the Organization in Times of Catastrophe, October, 2001)

Organizational External – assure that they processes and procedures in place are reflective of the current challenges facing the community, involve the community, make them part of the solution, listen.

Personal Internal – educate people on how the system works and how to make use of the normal administrative processes within the system, establish strong communications with the individuals within the community, and explain how the system will operate in a fair and equitable manner at the individual level.

Personal External – create alternatives for the individual, an escalation or ombudsman process, outside of the normal channels for use when people feel that the system is failing them.

Case Study: If you examine the arguments being made on how to fix the current economic crisis in a speech made by Barak Obama, the following pattern emerges:

Premise: “The economic crisis we face is the worst since the Great Depression… …millions of Americans will open up their 401(k) statements this week and see that so much of their hard-earned savings have disappeared.  …The credit crisis has left businesses large and small unable to get loans, which means they can’t buy new equipment, or hire new workers, or even make payroll for the workers they have…760,000 workers have lost their jobs this year…”

Obama Speech on Fixing the Economy Internal External
Institutional/Organizational “…it will take a new direction. It will take new leadership in Washington. It will take a real change in the policies and politics of the last eight years.”


“..I realize you’re cynical and fed up with politics. I understand that you’re disappointed and even angry with your leaders.”


“We need to pass an economic rescue plan for the middle-class and we need to do it now. Today I’m proposing a number of steps that we should take immediately to stabilize our financial system, provide relief to families and communities, and help struggling homeowners.”

“We’re still home to innovation and technology, colleges and universities that are the envy of the world. Some of the biggest ideas in history have come from our small businesses and our research facilities.”


“…create the jobs of tomorrow by unlocking the drive, and ingenuity, and innovation of the American people.”


“…America needs to end our dependence on foreign oil.”

Personal “…We’ll ensure every child can compete in the global economy by recruiting an army of new teachers and making college affordable for anyone who wants to go.”


“…extend and expand unemployment benefits to those Americans who have lost their jobs and are having a harder time finding new ones in this weak economy.”

“We’ll create five million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the Middle East in ten years, and we’ll create two million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools and bridges.”

Obama’s Conclusion: “…We can do this if we come together, if we have confidence in ourselves and each other, if we look beyond the darkness of the day to the bright light of hope that lies ahead…”

While I did not sort the whole speech due to space limitations, you can certainly see that he covered the Creating Confidence bases.

Confidence can be created or restored, by working through in a systematic fashion and addressing those issues that created the crisis of confidence. Leadership has a critical role to play in this respect for they are the ones who are supposed to have their gaze to the horizon, seeing issues and challenges before the boat of confidence hits the shoals. Institutions and organizations in general can thrive or fail depending on the confidence levels that their citizens, customers, investors, employees, suppliers, members and others have in their ability to provide and the perception of the need for the services or products for which they came into existence.

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