Town Halls & Buses & Fairs … Oh My!

Someone recently asked me why I use so many examples from political leaders when discussing effective leadership.

Isn’t it obvious? Elected leaders and candidates routinely give us something that is simply too good to ignore. This week’s example is the brou ha ha over President Obama’s bus trip through the heartland.

In case you missed it, a number of people were upset that the President left his “real job” in Washington to ride through the middle of the U.S. on a new tricked out bus while conducting town hall meetings and visiting the Fair.

To the President’s detractors, this was a blatantly political act designed to take the focus off of the two leading Republican presidential candidates, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Governor Rick Perry.

Bachmann and Perry were also taking time away from their “real jobs” to ride through America’s heartland on tricked out buses attending town hall meetings and Fairs. The only apparent difference is that they were asking people to give them a new job while on the clock at their current job while the President was accused of asking people if he could keep his current job.

The Leadership Lesson

The problem isn’t that President Obama did what he did. It is that he – and every other elected leader – hasn’t done it enough.

No one questions the notion of a candidate making the rounds asking for votes. That’s what candidates have always done. They crisscross the country on expensive busses with an entourage of expensive consultants and handlers to shake hands, listen to people, and solicit support.

Once elected, unfortunately, these same people invest less and less time actually meeting with and listening to the voters who put them into office. Instead, that privilege is granted to large donors, lobbyists, and party insiders.

It is the rarity of an elected leader actually spending time with voters that makes it (1) a newsworthy event; and (2) something that can be easily relegated to political posturing rather than leadership.

It works the same way for every leader in every type of organization. If the only time you invest time talking and listening to people is when you need something from them, your motives will be suspect and your credibility questioned.

Tom Peters and Bob Waterman introduced the phrase “Management by Wandering Around”(MBWA) in their 1982 classic book, In Search of Excellence. The notion – originally traced to the leadership philosophy at Hewlett-Packard – is that those in authority should be out with their people interacting in an informal and impromptu manner.

The phase has become synonymous with an effective leadership style that engages people. But, it only works if you do it on a regular basis. There is nothing informal about a one-time per year visit. To the contrary, you would be amazed at the formal planning that goes into “informal” discussions when a manager only practices MBWA based on their immediate needs.

Open communication initiated by leaders is the lifeblood of staying connected with followers and engaging them in your vision. But, you – like the President – need to make true conversation with others a regular practice. You can’t wait to talk with people when you need something. That creates opportunities for detractors to question your motives and undercut your message.

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