There’s a powerful lesson in this week’s Massachusetts Senate election – a wonderful learning experience that we in the leadership development field call a “critical incident.” A critical incident is any seminal moment in a leader’s career that stands out as a fork in the road or a wakeup call… either positively or negatively. Often times, it’s that “uh-oh” moment when you realize that your strategy, message or behavior needs to change, or else. Critical incidents don’t come along every day (hence the phrase) but they are memorable and direction-changing; sometimes they save you from yourself, and other times, well, you don’t recover (Tiger Woods crashing his SUV in late November qualifies as a critical incident – we’ll see how that works out for him).
President Obama may one day point to this defeat for the Democrats in Massachusetts as a turning point in his leadership strategy as it involves talking to the American people. Obama has been taking a lot of heat lately as being “out of touch” with what the public wants to see from this administration; his poll numbers are dwindling, and he’s getting torn up consistently in the press (interestingly, his approval ratings are almost identical to Ronald Reagan’s after his first year in office).
Turns out there’s a reason that organizations do employee engagement surveys, and that news agencies do opinion polls – listening to your constituents matters, both in the corporate world and the political arena. It’s all well and good to have a bold leadership vision, and claim not to be politically motivated because you’re trying to do what’s right. At the same time, sooner or later it makes sense to turn an ear toward the people you’re trying to lead, and listen to their feedback and input.
That said, Obama may be starting to “get it” when it comes to paying attention to the cues and critical incidents happening around him. Yesterday, in an interview with ABC News, he said: “we were so busy getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.” Amen to that. The lesson for all leaders in that statement is clear – every once in awhile, don’t forget to turn around and see if anyone’s actually following your leadership!
Sometimes it seems that it takes a critical incident to make the light bulb go on… for many leaders, it’s 360 feedback, or a failure to influence on a specific topic. For President Obama, this critical incident may turn out to be a gift – a true wakeup call, a chance to right the ship before the 2010 elections. Never forget that you need to be soliciting and listening to feedback from your people – try to avoid learning that lesson the hard way, through a negative critical incident that derails your mission. Stay in touch with those you’re trying to lead, absorb the input, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your plans. You can still lead from a bold vision… but ignoring how your leadership is landing with others is just asking for trouble.