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Barack Obama's Victory: Three Lessons for Business


The Illinois senator built his decisive win on three leadership principles: a clear vision, clean execution, and friends in high places

This column is not about ideology. The election is over. And while we believe John McCain is a great American whose economic platform made better sense for business, especially in terms of free trade, tax policy, and job creation, we look forward with hope to the Presidency of Barack Obama. If his is an America for all people, as he has so passionately promised, then surely it will also serve the interests of the millions of hard-working small-business owners and entrepreneurs who are so much a part of this country's strength and future.

But enough of politics.

This column is about the lessons business leaders can take from McCain's loss and Obama's win. Because even with the differences between running a campaign and a company, three critical leadership principles overlap. And it was upon those principles that Obama's decisive victory was built.

Start with the granddad of leadership principles: a clear, consistent vision. If you want to galvanize followers, you simply cannot recast your message. Nor can you confuse or scare people. McCain's health-care policy, for example, had real merit. But his presentation of it was always confoundingly complex.

Few Mistakes

Meanwhile, Obama's message was simple and aspirational. He talked about the failings of George W. Bush. He talked about change and hope and health care for all. Over and over, he painted a picture of the future that excited people. He also set a perfect example for business leaders: Stick to a limited number of points, repeat them relentlessly, and turn people on.

The next leadership principle should sound familiar: execution. In their seminal book by the same name, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan made the case that execution isn't the only thing a leader needs to get right, but without it little else matters. This election proves their point. In nearly two years of steady blocking and tackling, Obama's team made few mistakes. From the outset, his advisers were best in class, and his players were always prepared, agile, and where they needed to be. McCain's team, hobbled by a less cohesive set of advisers and less money, couldn't compete.

Another, perhaps bigger, execution lesson can be taken from Obama's outmaneuvering of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. She thought she could win the old-fashioned way, by taking the big states of New York, Ohio, California, and so on. He figured out an unexpected way to gain an edge—in the usually overlooked caucuses.

Well-Placed Allies

The business analog couldn't be more apt. So often, companies think they've nailed execution by doing the same old "milk run" better and better. But winning execution means doing the milk run perfectly—and finding new customers and opening new markets along the way. You can't just beat your rivals by the old rules; to grow, you have to invent a new game and beat them at that, too.

Finally, this election reinforces the value of friends in high places. From the start, Obama had support from the media, which chose to downplay controversies involving him. Meanwhile, after the primaries, McCain began to take a beating. In the end, no one could dispute that Obama's relationship with the media made a difference.

As a business leader, you can't succeed without the endorsement of your board. Every time you try to usher in change, some people will resist. They may fight you openly in meetings, through the media, or with the subterfuge of palace intrigue. And you'll need to make your case in all those venues. But in the end, if your board has your back, defeat can be turned into victory.

That's why you need to start any leadership initiative with your "high-level friends" firmly by your side, convinced of the merits of your character and policies. But that's not enough. If you want to keep your board as an ally, don't surprise them. Think about McCain's "gotcha" selection of Sarah Palin. Scrambling to catch up with the story, the media was not amused.

Surely pundits will scrutinize this election for years to come. But business leaders can take its lessons right now. You may have winning ideas. But you need much more to win the game.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new website at www.welchway.com For their podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm.

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