Friday, April 8, 2011

How "Camelot Wisdom" Can Address Our Political and Budget Woes

Politicians Should Take Some Lessons from King Arthur's Leadership and Communication Style
The failure we see in the statehouses and in Congress starts with an inability to listen and understand. It was clear to King Arthur that having the ability to comprehend other people, their circumstances, and their environments was not only nice and good, but important in other ways, too. He learned that one could achieve a huge competitive advantage. What better way to know your adversaries? And who do people want to vote for, fight for, or work for? Most often it’s the person who takes an interest in them, recognizes their motivation, and feels their pains and successes.

Just about everyone clamors for some understanding. But this cuts both ways: we want to be understood by others, and others want us to understand them. Yet, we may be losing our collective capacity to understand on an emotional level as some recent studies have shown. Perhaps this is one reason why the “my way or the highway” method of negotiation has become so popular. The belief of many politicians that even a 50 percent-plus-one victory gives them some sort of clear and unassailable mandate is another reason why we can’t move past gridlock. We can’t take a step forward when the first position is to dig-in-your-heals.

This was similar to how Arthur behaved initially in his mission to unite England at a time of competing kings and threats from abroad. Might for Right was his grand strategy: he invented the Round Table to channel the energy of the knights away from fighting toward the enforcement of a new order. Over time, however, it turned out to be a failed policy. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Arthur said to Lancelot, “…when the kings are bullies who believe in force, the people are bullies too.” He had the sense to see the flaws and began the process of moving, “groping,” toward a newer, better foundation: Equal Justice.

We’d all like to get things right the first time and politicians are no different. Though it’s certainly the most desirous way of operating, it’s hardly the most common. Sometimes the imperfect thing is the only thing to do. Whatever axiom you want to use—half a loaf is better than none or Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good”—incrementalism is hard to accept but equally hard to forswear.

Like the uncertainty felt by corporations and interest groups of today, Arthur created a conundrum for the class of nobles in his attempt to change civilization. They weren’t sure if he represented a threat to their positions and wealth or an opportunity to enhance them. And like all threats and opportunities, he had to deal with the rational as well as the emotional sides of the issue. Protecting self-interest, maintaining tradition, helping your fellow man, and doing what’s best for the greatest number of people all had to be balanced. Arthur had the right intention with the wrong method and he knew it. He admitted his mistake. That’s the first step in re-railing a strategy: identify the strengths and weaknesses—what should be kept, modified or jettisoned. Acting in the best tradition of the modern innovator and entrepreneur, Arthur took a risk. He went forward with a plan, though there were imperfections 
and gaps in understanding all of the potential issues.

The ability to sustain an effort is frequently underappreciated. Because incremental advances are hard to discern, we often see anxious leaders swapping out one set of strategies and tactics for a new set too soon; they don’t allow enough time for their plans to mature. With enough patience (and the appropriate resources), we know that all the baby steps can add up to become a completed marathon. Rarely do we see or accomplish all or nothing; compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. The two steps forward/one step back process frustrated and even depressed King Arthur but making progress and leaving improvements behind is what’s important.

There are, of course, times when one can (or must) reach the finish line in one bold move. But this “Camelot wisdom” should remind our leaders that the Holy Grail they seek isn’t at the end of this day or the next week but after a long journey of give and take.

You can read more in Camelot, Inc. Leadership and Management Lessons from King Arthur and the Round Table,

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

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