With the U.S. elections ramping up and IBM’s 100-year anniversary event in New York focusing like a laser on what makes a good leader, I’m finding it hard not to compare both the incumbent and Republican challengers to the top leaders in technology and find them wanting.
Recently, I listened to Sir Richard Branson, one of the most well-regarded leaders, talk about how his management approach differed from Steve Jobs’ — and why his approach was better for the world. I’m writing this at an EMC event — where attendees I’ve spoken with have identified Pat Gelsinger as one of the most compelling, passionate and engaged top executives they know.
I’m starting to wonder if the problem that the U.S. and most democratic countries have is lack of a clear definition of what is needed in a leader — and that is why incumbents struggle with priorities, and challengers appear to be all over the map, and rise and fall with the sound bite.
I’ll close with my product of the week — something you can’t actually buy yet but could well define the next generation of personal computing whether it is on laptops, tablets or smartphones.
What Makes a Great Leader
At the IBM Centennial Leadership event in New York, top CEOs and presidents from other countries came up one after the other and defined in their words what makes for a great leader and often implied why President Obama falls short. In a nutshell, it came down to three things: vision, leadership and execution.
Vision applies to the destination the company or country focuses on. Candidate Obama’s vision appeared to be one of change, and that resonated because Americans were unhappy with the status quo. However, change in itself isn’t a well-defined destination — and once in power, that same vision can be used against the incumbent. In fact, the most common vision from the Republican contenders is also one of change — more often tied to the near-global change sentiment against incumbent politicians everywhere: “Throw the bums out!”
On vision, Sam Palmisano in tech is one of the strongest. His Smarter City/Smarter Planet vision is one that resonates well, can last beyond his own tenure, and seems to address problems that move beyond technology and include politics. Richard Branson’s vision of taking back and commercializing space is the closest to what was likely the strongest presidential vision of my generation: John F. Kennedy’s race to the moon.
Of the current candidates, including the incumbent, the strongest are likely Herman Cain’s vision of reforming the tax code, which is simple yet touches most everyone; and Ron Paul’s vision of reforming government, which is more powerful but vastly more complex, and thus harder to articulate.
Leadership: Ability to Drive Change
One of the speakers at the IBM event argued that meetings should be optional; you’d quickly discover which executives couldn’t lead, because they’d be in the empty rooms. Jimmy Carter actually had one of the strongest visions with regard to eliminating dependency on oil and in terms of fixing what was then — and still is — fundamentally wrong with the U.S. Unfortunately, he was a weak leader and lasted only one term.
This is likely the greatest shortcoming for President Obama; his first two years with a Democratic Congress were exemplified by virtually no real accomplishment other than a healthcare program that has become a political nightmare. The U.S. just lost its strongest technology leader in Steve Jobs, who not only led Apple to rival the success of the most powerful oil companies, but also defined the technology industry to a great extent.
Finding leadership in the current Republican field is difficult, but currently it appears Herman Cain is having the greatest impact because Perry is altering his approach to address Cain’s 9-9-9 position. When Romney or Perry were leading, most challengers seemed to just pound on them — not follow their leads. Newt Gingrich likely has the most demonstrated leadership on the national stage, given he was Speaker of the House, but that leadership has not been demonstrated in the debates or in his most recent campaign.
Execution: Leaving Things Better Than You Found Them
Both Sam Palmisano and Steve Jobs clearly improved their companies while they were there, and Jobs’ and Branson’s companies wouldn’t even exist without them. This is likely the greatest failing of the current administration, because by critical metrics like the deficit and unemployment, things appear to have gotten worse. That’s largely because efforts were mostly tactical and incurred more costs without any sustaining benefits. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton likely are the best remembered for executing the most strongly — Reagan for the end of the Cold War, and Clinton for executing economically.
Branson argued that part of what helps with execution is being a great listener. Top executives can’t know everything, and the best are often defined by their ability to learn and tap the resources of others. Interestingly, Meg Whitman — HP’s new CEO — seems to be making a name for herself by making listening one of her defining behaviors.
In looking at both campaign and career execution, Romney appears the strongest. He has a history of adjusting his views to match those voting for him and in holding true to those changed views. This seems to best ensure his ability to initially get elected and get things accomplished while elected. Huntsman’s blended political and personal history seem one of the more compelling, particularly when you take into account listening, but his campaign execution has been less than ideal.
Richard Branson vs. Steve Jobs: The New Metric – Survival of the Species
At the McAfee Focus event, Richard Branson talked about what made him different than Steve Jobs, and I was struck with what should be a final leadership test for a president. Jobs focused like a laser on financial performance and killed all of Apple’s philanthropic activity. Branson takes the profits from his airlines and reinvests them in alternative fuel development, because the health of the planet is more important to him. As an investor, I prefer Jobs’ approach, but as a human I prefer Branson’s.
I think the president of the U.S. should have a major interest in keeping me alive and assuring the survival of the race. Of the recent past presidents, Jimmy Carter was likely the most focused on survival of the species, and he has been more influential in this regard since his term ended than when he was president. Obama leads the field in this interest but his lack of focus, inability to lead, and inability to articulate a vision implies that, like Carter, his big impact in this area will likely come after he steps down.
Of the Republican candidates, Perry seems the most aggressively pro domestic oil, which is economically sound but likely provides the fastest path toward the human race’s extinction. Ron Paul has perhaps what’s closest to a race-preservation strategy, given he is the most aggressive anti-war candidate, but the Republican Party isn’t exactly defined by long-term human survival strategies.
Wrapping Up: A Tech Exec for Prez
Bill Gates spends virtually all his time on race-preservation efforts these days, Sam Palmisano has focused IBM on making cities and the world more efficient and better able to support humans, and Richard Branson perhaps represents the best blend of being successful in business and protecting humanity. In the end, these men — two of whom never completed college — represent a better blend of vision, leadership, execution and focus on making our lives both longer and better than any of the existing candidates. If we were to fix that problem first, likely the others we are facing would become vastly easier.
By the way, a few years ago and long before the California elections, I wrote why folks with just business backgrounds often fail on the political stage. Then I accurately forecast that both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina would lose their respective elections because they lacked a critical skill set. This would suggest that Herman Cain would likely not be successful for the same reason.
As for my pick among those running, Mitt Romney is likely the best alternative to Obama, several of the Republican candidates would likely be even less effective or make things worse, and I would desperately like another choice.
Product of the Week: Deep Defender from McAfee/Intel
At McAfee Focus, McAfee launched Deep Safe, the first proof point from the joint McAfee/Intel project. We clearly live in a hostile world, and the biggest growing threat is Zero Day exploits. These are security exposures that only become visible when a hostile party begins an attack. Unlike traditional problems — which were often identified days, weeks or months before a hostile entity attempted an exploit, thus allowing vendors some time to craft a defense — Zero Day attacks catch everyone by surprise and likely represent the greatest threat to PCs and smart devices like tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs.
What Deep Defenderuniquely does is operate in parallel to the operating system while looking for unauthorized behavior. Unlike traditional security software, it is effective against rootkits, which operate below the application layer, as well as against malware that can turn traditional security software off.
It may be the only kind of product that can be effective against Zero Day threats, and its creation required tight collaboration between a chip vendor and a security vendor. It also may be the only way to secure next-generation smart devices, which don’t really have the headroom for things like antivirus software. I expect a derivative product will eventually revolutionize server security as well.
Deep Defender appears to be one of the most powerful weapons on the horizon to aid the war against hostile threats to our connected devices. One of my hats is that of a security expert, and the revolutionary nature of Deep Defender makes it an ideal candidate for product of the week.