Love what George W. Bush has to say or hate it, corporate leaders can learn a lot from how he says it.
(Business 2.0) – There are things I wish our president did differently. It would be nice, for instance, if he admitted mistakes, because only by analyzing failure can executives improve. Nevertheless, George W. Bush is, in some ways, a model business leader for our time. In particular, if the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates taught us the power of mass media, Bush's success demonstrates the importance of "mass messages"--simple, confident mantras packaged for broad consumption. Here's how Bush shapes and delivers mass messages, and how smart businesspeople can too.
The biggest takeaway from the 2004 election is that there is no objective set of criteria by which leaders are measured. Efforts to stabilize national debt and democratize Iraq are proceeding slower than some might like, but on Election Day neither soaring deficits nor mounting casualties were fatal. That's because Bush painted for Americans an even bleaker scenario that could have resulted had his administration not enacted tax cuts, not invaded Iraq, and not gotten tough on homeland security. Business executives, too, can put their own spin on what matters. Take General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. Although GM has lost market share for years in the crucial U.S. market and is less profitable than Toyota or Nissan, in a speech to 250 journalists before the North American International Auto Show, Wagoner touted GM's growth in the Asia-Pacific region. And even though GM was losing money in Europe, Wagoner reminded his audience that his company's performance there was "the best in five years."
Clarity and Confidence
I sometimes dislike the way the president oversimplifies problems. For example, the complex economic assumptions behind projections of Social Security's future are hardly captured by the phrase "ownership society." Yet while people need the truth about an impending challenge, they also crave confidence that their leaders have situations under control. (As President Clinton said while in office, "strong and wrong" beats "weak and right.") In a 2002 interview, former Intel CEO Andy Grove noted that no leader knows enough about the future to make the optimal decision every time, but it's better to set a clear course today and tackle problems that arise tomorrow. Steve Jobs is famous for unreasonable confidence, but his so-called reality distortion field makes him a superb leader. Certainty at the top trickles down, giving subordinates the confidence to make alliances and design products--in short, stick their necks out--to realize a vision.
As Jack Welch says, building or changing a culture requires being "relentless and boring." That's because people are notoriously good at forgetting what to do and why they're doing it. After Bush won support by making the war in Iraq a part of the war on terror, he hammered home the connection ad nauseam. Similarly, at Wells Fargo, Richard Kovacevich has been plugging away on the same strategy he articulated years ago at Norwest--to "outnational" local banks (by offering a broader range of products and services) and to "outlocal" national banks (through better customer service). He says a strategy should be so simple--and unchanging--that people ought to be able to reiterate it in their sleep.
Employees in the 21st century, like 21st-century voters, spend their days bombarded by cell-phone calls, e-mail messages, and video programming, so getting their attention can be difficult. Time and again, Bush's easy-to-understand, repetitious messages prove to be his effective weapons. No matter what you think about his political strategies, be sure to grasp the power of his communication tactics.