By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States and the Democrats also gained control of the US Senate (57/100 seats) and the House of Representatives (257/435 seats, or 59%).
President Obama was inaugurated on January 10, 2009. On January 23, 2009, he said to his Republican rivals, Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” – (President Obama to House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, January 23, 2009).
With this majority, they enacted 34 laws in the next two years, including the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with complete partisanship.
Elections have consequences. So do leadership choices.
Given that this essay is being posted on the morning of the US Election Day (November 3, 2020) without knowing the outcome, it may be timely to elaborate some thoughts about how leaders in general grapple with the reality of how choices have consequences to improve their effectiveness.
1. Anticipate future consequences of today’s choices.
Choices are often about current decisions; consequences draw attention to the implications for the future. In politics, Obama’s majority eliminated a filibuster rule and a supermajority standard for appointees to confirm Obama’s picks to the US Court of Appeals. Their short-term actions had long-term implications as eight years later the Republicans nominated and approved Amy Barrett a Supreme Court justice using the Democratic rule changes. Even longer-term, the 2012 rule changes may encourage less compromise, more political partisanship, larger election pendulum swings, and reduced confidence in government.
In business, the pandemic risks have caused many firms to implement working at home. Some thoughtful leaders are now anticipating the longer-term consequences of this current choice that may include a lack of social cohesion among employees, a dearth of innovation that often flows from creative teams engaged in face-to-face dialogue and debate, or a more splintered workforce as some employees have to be present at a worksite (e.g., manufacturing) while others have the flexibility of remote work (e.g. R&D, IT, HR, marketing). When leaders anticipate consequences, they make more informed choices.
2. Fold the future into the present.
Envisioning the future anticipates consequences; folding the future into the present informs choices. A company decided to pivot its strategy from primarily a product to a service focus. While this strategic shift made sense because of changing market opportunities, it had enormous implications for many stakeholders. Customers had to accept new services and identity; new suppliers had to sourced; investors had to recognize and gain confidence in the new direction; employees had to acquire new skills; and internal systems (operations, IT, finance) had to be adapted. Leaders who explore the implications of future visions on current actions can move beyond bold (and too often unrealized) aspirational statements to realistic, often small and simple, steps to a future state. Nudging behavior forward toward an aspirational vision encourages leaders to replace all or nothing thinking (e.g., President Obama’s statement, I won … ergo you lost) with agile and collaborative actions. Effective leaders recognize the cumulative impact of small choices (or nudges) to attain larger consequences.
3. Manage the process of making a choice.
When connecting choices and consequences, the outcome of the choice is often less important than the process of how the choice is made. In managing the choice process, leaders should consider:
- Who is involved in and affected by this choice?
- What are the options and what compromises can be made?
- Who will ultimately make the final choice?
- When should the choice be made and communicated?
- What information can help make a better short and long term choice?
- What are the indicators that the choice is and is not working so that adaptation can occur?
- How can the choice be communicated to ensure support?
Leaders who manage the process of making a choice turn events into new patterns. In the firm pivoting from product to service, leaders made a series of choices, some of which worked and some of which did not. By constantly upgrading the processes to make these choices, the mistakes became isolated events not sustained patterns and the service agenda became more established. Leaders who attend to the process of making a choice are more likely to garner support for the choice, improve the choices, and ensure more positive consequences.
4. Manage risks.
All choices have risks both the risk of doing something new and innovative and the risk of not adapting. Risk management is often about both predicting the future (what will happen if …) and about the probability of that prediction coming to pass (how likely is this to happen …). A typology of risks may include stakeholder risks (customers, investors, communities, employee), but also emotional risks. For example, in today’s virtual work world, the emotional risks of employee distancing leading to social isolation leading to individual angst and organizational malaise should be considered as choices are made. Effective leaders assess their personal and their organization’s risk appetite, how much is required by their markets, and how to sequence risk into the organization.
5. Create a virtuous choice/consequence cycle
Leaders who recognize that choices have consequences and that consequences then inform choices create a virtuous choice/consequence cycle. These leaders are not surprised by the consequences of their choices and the consequences today inform choices tomorrow in a positive spiral of progress. A student I worked with lamented that his degree in religious studies would not likely lead to a high-paying job thus impacting his future lifestyle. Another student with the same degree was delighted to pursue a meaningful career, even with modest economic prospects. Leaders who recognize and adapt to the choice/consequence cycle learn, grow, and find meaning for themselves and others.
The “choices have consequence” logic (or actions with accountability; decisions require obligations) obviously did not start with President Obama. Jesus, a divine leader for many, and timeless philosopher for all, said:
(Book of Luke, chapter 14) 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ (NIV)
Hopefully, just as the 2020 US election choices will have consequences, any leader can recognize and act on these choice-consequence concepts to be more effective, or, in more profound words, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.