Leadership Lessons from the Easter Egg Roll

4 04 2009

This is a tale of leadership mayhem, good (albeit faulty) intentions, and unintended consequences…and perhaps, there may be something to learn from in it…

Every year, the White House puts on a big shin dig Easter Egg Hunt  Roll, where anyone can come and enjoy the season on the White House lawn. Usually there are hundreds of things for the kids to do, free games, free food, celebrities, and photo-ops with everyone from the Easter Bunny to Mr. McFeely. 

The only “price of admission” has been your own determination to sit in line overnight to get tickets. Last year I weathered the chilly late winter weather and lived the life of a vagabond in line outside of the White House for tickets. It was cold. It was exhausting. But it was worth it, because, in the end, I showed my true-blue American patriotism to take my kids to an event that they would never forget (Trust me, I took enough pictures to make sure they NEVER would).

This year, while waiting for the day and night to go vagabond again, my wife and I were dismayed to find that *someone* had changed the routine, and put the tickets online. For the sake of fairness, inclusion, and reaching a welcoming hand out to anyone and everyone (you know, the American way), the process was made electronic so all could access this truly American event…

At least that was the intention.

Nevermind that people who camp out all night are vicious, die-hards who are quick to call “no cutting!” Never mind that everyone from local hotel conceirge’s to less-fortunate downtown residents without a permanent home (Yes, homeless people) charge upwards of $100 to wait in line on behalf of someone.  Nevermind that this is a unique one-time a year event, almost as unique as a local sports team winning a game. No…this was for the American Way!

The result: the tickets were gone in minutes, and the only place to find them is on Craigslist selling for $50 a pop.  And notwithstanding White House efforts to stimy online sales, no amount of policing of ticket hawking will stop the tide.  It wouldn’t have been half as frustrating if the white house site was prepared for the millions of hits it would get and didn’t crash so often. People ended up camping out in front of their computer for 24 hours trying to get tickets.

So what do we learn here? Unintended consequences can ruin good intentions. And I think it’s a leadership lesson, above anything else. All too often in leadership, someone may come up with a good idea and latch onto it. Offer Easter Egg Roll tickets online! Fantastic idea! Think of the praise for such an innovative idea! And while many may say leadership is born in good ideas, such as this one, it’s not the idea that makes the leader, it’s a leader’s foresight that determines his or her leadership acumen–as in the foresight to see the consequences of offering tickets to Obama’s first Easter Egg Roll to an online world with millions starving for an opportunity to make a buck, or 50.

Then again, maybe I’m just peeved that thanks to change in standard operating procedures, I don’t get to take my kids to the Easter Egg Roll, and someone from Colorado is selling my tickets to the highest bidder….

I like my other reasoning better though.

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The Leadership Imperative: Leader or Manager?

31 08 2007

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Late Wednesday night, an official report was released on the Virigina Tech shootings placing blame on university officials for failing to communicate the impending danger in a timely and efficient manner.

While I’m sure there will be much debate on whether the horrific event that took the lives of 33 people could have been prevented, I’d like to dedicate this space to analyzing the response by Virginia Tech’s president Charles Steger to the condemning report.

One particular statement from Steger stands out quite ominously:

The crime was unprecedented in its cunning and murderous results. And yet it happened here. To say that something could have been prevented is certainly not to say that it would have been. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that this tragedy, horrific as it is, could have been worse.

We can dissect this reaction into 3 separate statements (which Steger conveniently put into 3 separate sentences).

Sentence/Statement 1: This has never happened before, so how could we have been prepared? I find it odd that in a post-911 world, anyone can pass this off as a viable reason for failure. The U.S. had never been attacked by passenger planes, but Giuliani didn’t throw his hands up and say, “Wow, we never saw this coming. We’ll just have to give up.” Contingency planning. Leaders do it. Managers make excuses for not doing it.

Sentence/Statement 2: It’s not like we could have made a difference anyway, so why worry about it?  This excuse usually follows the “we didn’t see it coming” excuse. As a leader, you take the 20/20 hindsight rule and you systematically revise your behavior and decisions to fix the situation, and then put processes in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Managers simply do the latter. The problem is, if a manager claims he/she couldn’t have done any better, it doesn’t matter how many new processes go into place, the result will remain the same. It’s the difference between building a learning and response system, and merely recreating the wheel with every crisis.

Sentence/Statement 3: “Hey, look on the bright side, it could’ve been worse.” It doesn’t matter how gravely you describe the tragedy, candy-coating doesn’t change the fact that you failed. I’m shocked that Stegel actually got away with making this statement. I can only imagine the collective cringe by public relations representatives at VT when he said it (Yes, I’m giving PR the benefit of the doubt, because no one in their right mind would try to sell the “it could have been worse” argument to an angry mob calling for your resignation).

In this one quote alone Steger illustrated the difference between leading and managing.  Leadership is a cycle of learning, thinking, anticipating, planning, decision-making and learning again. Management is making decisions as things come. One is about vision, the other about doing what’s worked before and hoping everything falls into place.

In short, a leader keeps the past, present, and future in front of him/her in a cycle of learning and decision-making. And this is perhaps the most glaring difficiency in Steger’s lack of leadership at Virginia Tech, perfectly reflected in his own incriminating statement: 

Asked whether he would have done anything different, Steger said, “No.”

It is my hope that Virginia Tech will find a leader to begin the healing where Steger’s management has failed.