Obama’s winning edge: a clear vision, execution and friends in right places

Obama’s winning edge: a clear vision, execution and friends in right places

This column is not about why John McCain should have won. The election is over. And while we believe John McCain is a great American whose economic platform would have made better sense for business, especially in terms of free trade, tax policy and job creation, we look forward with hope to the presidency of Barack Obama. If his is an America for all people, as he has so passionately promised, then surely it will also serve the interests of the millions of hardworking small business owners and entrepreneurs who are so much a part of this country’s strength and future. But enough politics.

This column is about the lessons business leaders can learn from McCain’s loss and Obama’s win. Because even with the differences between running a campaign and running a company, three critical leadership principles overlap. And it was upon those principles that Obama’s decisive victory was built.

Start with the leadership principle that’s the granddaddy of them all: a clear, consistent vision. If you want to galvanize followers, you simply cannot keep changing your message. Nor can you confuse or scare people. McCain’s health care policy, for example, had a lot of merit. But his explanation of it was always confoundedly complex, and one of its provisions probably sounded downright scary to the 20 million people who thought they might lose their cherished employer-supported plans.

Meanwhile, Obama’s message was simple and aspirational. He talked about George Bush. He talked about change and hope, and health care for everyone. Over and over again, he painted a picture of America’s future that excited people into joining his cause. And so he set the perfect example of communication for business leaders: Stick to a limited number of points, repeat them relentlessly, and turn people onto your vision.

The next leadership principle should sound familiar: execution. In their seminal book by the same name, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan made the case that execution isn’t the only thing a leader needs to get right, but without it, little else matters. This election proves their point.

In nearly two years of relentless blocking-and-tackling, Obama’s team made astonishingly few mistakes on the field. From the outset, his advisers were the best in class, and throughout the campaign his players were prepared, agile and where they needed to be. McCain’s team, hobbled by a less cohesive set of advisers and less money, just couldn’t compete with Obama’s well-oiled machine.

Another, and perhaps bigger, execution lesson from the election can be taken from Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Clinton thought she could win the old-fashioned way—by taking the big states of New York, Ohio, California and so on. Obama figured out a new and unexpected way—in the usually overlooked caucuses. The business analogue couldn’t be more apt. So often, companies think they’ve nailed execution by doing the same old “milk run" better and better. But true winning execution requires doing the old milk run perfectly AND finding new customers and opening new markets at the same time. You can’t just beat your competition by following the old rules; to grow, you have to invent a new game and beat them at it too.

Third and finally, this election teaches an important leadership lesson about the importance of having friends in high places. From the very beginning of the campaign, Obama appeared to have strong support from the media, which chose to downplay the controversies surrounding the candidate. Meanwhile, McCain took a regular beating. In the end, no one could argue that Obama’s media endorsement made a difference.

As a business leader, you cannot succeed without the endorsement of your board. Every time you try to usher in change, some people will resist. They may fight you openly in strategy meetings, through the media or with the subterfuge of internal palace intrigue. And you will need to make your case in all those venues. In the end, if your board has your back, it will make the difference between success and failure.

That’s why you need to start any leadership initiative with your high-level friends firmly by your side, convinced of the merits of your character and policies. But that’s not enough. If you want to keep your board as an ally, don’t surprise them. Think about McCain’s “gotcha" selection of Sarah Palin. Scrambling to catch up with the story, the media was not amused.

Surely pundits will scrutinize this election for years to come. But business leaders can learn its lessons right now. You may have winning ideas, but you need much more to win the game.

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com

Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.