Avoid the Niagara Falls Reaction

How many times have you been in a situation where you’re in the midst of a discussion and suddenly after one comment you find yourself going over the top?

American politics and organizational life seem to be dominated by such trigger phrases. They occur in our personal lives as well. There’s always one phrase that elicits a reflexive reaction that makes you frustrated.

The challenge is not to overreact when you encounter these trigger phrases. Smart leaders make adjustments, but they don’t overreact. Often, discussions are destroyed by emotional reactions.

I was recently having a discussion with one of my neighbors. We were casually sitting by a creek on a fairly lackadaisical weekend and I, being the somewhat liby academic, made reference to the strength of socialized medicine.

Now I was only trying to make a point about collective responsibility, but the word ‘socialized’ elicited a reaction and a series of generalizations which took the discussion nowhere. After the generalizations we went straight to accusations.

I notice that if I say the names George Bush or Richard Nixon to one of my colleagues with a sociology degree–I’m  likely to incite an over-the-top reaction. One colleague of mine went as far as to say, George Bush was a lousy cheerleader at Yale…and so ended our conversation on Iraq.

In a discussion about Richard Nixon, my friend was only able to give the man credit for his trip to China and, begrudgingly, give him posthumous credit for the ultimate exercise in socialism; price fixing.

Globalization. Gun control. Free market. Guantanamo. Welfare. Free trade. Fracking. Nuclear waste. Single provider. Immigration. These expressions are all up there with Nixon and Bush and, in some sections, Obama isn’t far behind. Point in fact, there are trigger words that trigger overreactions that stifle discussion.

There are expressions that send us all over Niagara Falls in a barrel. If you don’t know what the Niagara Falls reaction is take a few minutes, grab your kids, and enjoy the video below.

The Niagara Falls reaction does not advance the debate; it stifles the debate. And though not as crude as Lou Costello’s cellmate, it is equally stifling and should be avoided by all. Have a nice weekend.


The Art of Campaigning

When we think of the concept of campaigning we often think of leaders standing on a platform heralding their unique virtues. We think of the old days of jumping from train station to train station–kissing babies, eating cheeseburgers, and watching a late night movie in the hotel room while reviewing tomorrow’s meetings.

And that’s exactly what campaigning is: long, hard, work. Ask anyone who has walked through the snows of Iowa or been caught in an ice storm in New Hampshire on a campaign trail.  But campaigning is more than that–it’s also a state of mind that essentially starts with a focused goal and the knowledge that you need to get people on your side in order to accomplish it.

Leaders in any setting enter a campaign mode when they have a focused direction which they understand cannot be achieved without rallying others to their position. The backbone of any campaign are the tactics that underline a leaders capacity to get people on their side.

Of late we’ve been rallying around the notion of change–change we can believe in, change for our times, change for our organization, change for the 21st century, and the list goes on–change is all over the place. In academia we talk about leading for change. Well, what other type of leadership is there–leading for holding things constant? Leading for doing nothing?

As political scientists pointed out years ago–leadership implies action or lack of action, it implies change or lack of change, as its focal point. This implies that the critical skills for change leadership is having the capacity to bring people to your position–it implies the capacity to enhance coalitions, lead them, and sustain them.

Point in fact, change leaders are running campaigns and this demands a vigilant attention to micro-skills that will keep people in your corner. It will demand immense interaction skills, superb negotiation skills, and yes, even in the work place–a cheeseburger or two.

Staying in a campaign mode is indeed exhausting–while you may not have to trek in icy New Hampshire a certain degree of awareness, a certain calculation, indeed a healthy bit of paranoia, is necessary.

So if you want to look to individuals who have led change don’t just look to Bill Clinton–look to his campaign manager Jim Carville. Don’t  just look to George W. Bush–look at Ken Mehlman. Don’t just look at Barack Obama–look at David Plouffe.

BLG Leadership Insights Features

Obama, Dylan Thomas, & Peter Finch

So we all want Obama to rage. We all want him to make the passionate plea, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.

Somehow we all have these moments when we’d like to see our leaders raging passionately. Maybe not quite as wildly as Peter Finch in the 1976 movie Network, but maybe with the rage that Dylan Thomas demands of his dying father when he asks him to “Rage, rage against the dying light.”

It’s generally agreed that Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night is about Thomas watching his once powerful father age and become blind and weak. Seeing the disintegration of his former idol Thomas urges his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

To often in life our fear is that we are simply stumbling, one mistake after another, and have lost the drama of rage. More so, we fear that our leaders are stumbling and have lost their rage as well.

The real challenge is to know when to rage and how to rage. When George Bush visited Ground Zero the timing was ideal and the drama palpable. The problem was: what followed the rage? Very little.

In that context, as we look back at his rage, we see how successful it was at mobilizing the crowd but it did little at sustaining momentum and following through.

In hindsight Bush’s rage has lost some of its historical meaning. Leaders have to be selective about what to rage about and when to rage. Sometimes rage can come to late and sometimes it can come to early. Sometimes it’s appropriate and sometimes it’s inappropriate.

The ecological catastrophe we’re now seeing the Gulf hasn’t challenged Obama’s capacity to deliver as much as it has challenged his dramaturgical capacity for knowing how to convey he will not go gently into the good night.

Some have said the raging Obama is not the real Obama. His concern, they argue, is with methodical execution. Absolutely true. We have seen very few leaders on the scene more capable and more thoughtful about methodical execution. But once and a while even Harry Truman has to lift up his walking stick, fling it at the setting sun, and rage at BP.

Most importantly, after raging, get something done.

Picture Credit: ArbyReed

BLG Leadership Insights

Pulling at the Rope: The Changing US-Israeli Coalition–Lesson for the Workplace

One of the challenges leaders face is when do they pull on the rope and when do they give people slack?  The relationship of the US with Israel has been in many ways, not simply a relationship between two states, but a relationship between individuals.  George Bush placed his emphasis on the focused alliance with Israel.  For him, the alliance was central.  In the context of Bush’s international agenda, this was paramount.  This led him to giving the Israelis a lot of slack—resources, autonomy, and minimal demands.  Bush hoped and assumed that the intent of the Israel and the intent of the US were identical in the long, if not the short, run.

In the workplace, similarly, leaders often put a disproportionate emphasis on loyalty and alliance–giving people all the resources they need, an immense amount of autonomy, and rarely tugging at the rope.

The problem is that too much slack can lead to divergence of agendas and the challenge for a leader is not simply to give people autonomy and resources, but to be able to assure that the intent and agendas of both parties are moving in the same direction. How often have you seen in organizations autonomous groups with their own resources doing whatever they care to do while forgetting the notion of accountability.  Tough leaders know when the time has come to pull on the string.  They know that at a certain point they may have to endanger the relationship in order to revamp it and cast a shadow on a coalition in order to strengthen it.  Currently, President Obama is beginning to pull the string.  It is a mistake to maintain that the tugging at the string is abandonment, disloyalty, or even total redefinition.

Often leaders who have experienced placid coalition relationships have had to modify these relationships because of changing circumstances. The challenge is not to dismantle the relationship while making adjustment, not destroying the intimacy because of changing times. The challenge is to redefine the parameters but maintain the essence of the core.  This is the challenge of the US-Israeli relationship, and the challenge that leaders in the workplace face everyday.