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Election 2012 offers important lessons for anyone in a leadership position

The presidential election of 2012 set records for dollars spent and raised a new bar for the deployment of technology in targeting individual voters. It was also a hard-fought race on both sides. President Barack Obama was, at times, leaning on the podium during his acceptance speech, presumably from exhaustion. Gov. Mitt Romney alluded to the incredible breakneck pace of the year in his concession, “Like so many of you, Paul [Ryan] and I have left everything on the field. We have given our all…”

It is no accident that Romney used a sports metaphor in his remarks. The days that follow a presidential election bear a striking resemblance to the days that follow Super Bowl Sunday. After all the din, statistics, predictions and anticipation, the victors and the vanquished return home to make sense of what transpired and decide what happens next.

As spectators, most of us spend the days that follow a national spectacle tuning in for the punditry. To do so, however, is to miss out on what many educators would call a “teachable moment.” Presidential campaigns and football seasons are compressed organizational life cycles that play out for all of us to see. A goal or mission is set, a team is built, players get swapped in and out, mistakes get made and an unforgiving clock ticks down to a conclusion.

For those of us in positions of leadership, there are lessons to be learned from these events:

  • The calendar and the clock are indifferent to circumstance. It is shocking how many leaders and organizations lack metrics and milestones on their calendars. Ringing phones, inbound email and well-meaning people knocking at your office door all erode your ability to focus on that which is most important because they all lead you to react and play defense. Our human desire to please often snowballs into a perpetual cycle of sacrificing the important on the altar of the urgent. Know what needs to be done by when and stay on-track to do it before doing anything else.
  • Make sure everyone knows what success looks like and what their specific role is in achieving it. For organizations that do have clearly stated goals, it is rare to see an alignment between management, staff and other departments’ goals. Sloppy surrogacy can send a campaign into a media tailspin, and if the players on the gridiron aren’t clear on whether or not they are aiming for the next down or a scoring event, possession changes in an instant.
  • Make sure YOU know what success looks like and what every contributor’s role is in achieving it. This not only enables you to effectively deploy your human capital, it empowers people. Volunteers and staff are naturally drawn to and even inspired by senior people who can address them by name and express interest and appreciation in precisely what they do. Elections can come down to a single county and the outcome of the Big Game is often determined by a kicker or a safety.
  • Confronting problems costs less than permitting them to fester. It is human nature to avoid unpleasant conversations and to be enablers for issues that have gone unchecked by our predecessors. Most of us strive to treat people with respect and we should. It is entirely possible to be direct and allow people to maintain their dignity simultaneously. Helping people perform at their best or moving them into a role where they can be more successful is a very caring thing to do — it is an investment. Permitting ongoing problems is wasteful spending of limited resources with which we are entrusted. It is perfectly acceptable to make substitutions and shake up the team so long as you do so in an ethical and legal manner.
  • There are some challenges you cannot think your way out of. Technology can help a campaign find target donors and voters, but someone still needs to hit the street and knock on doors. If you have board members that have not raised money recently, firmly encourage them to do so. Their advice and counsel is valuable, but talk is easy. You need their help so you can stay focused on a myriad deliverables and the calendar. If the board member lacks the type of connections that can yield resources, a lower ante is acceptable so long as it is something. President Obama was re-elected a margin of less than 2 percent of the popular vote and many a football game has been decided by that single extra point earned for a good post-touchdown kick. Incremental steps add up.

In the Oliver Stone film, “Any Given Sunday,” Al Pacino’s character sums it up nicely in a locker room speech: “… Life is just a game of inches. So is football. … The inches we need are everywhere around us. They‘re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. … We claw with our finger nails for that inch. ‘Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.”

President Obama, Gov. Romney and any team that has ever made it to the Big Game know and live this. Successful nonprofits and businesses do as well.

John J. Brady is the Chief Operating Officer of HigherNext, Inc. With 20 years in the education sector, he writes on matters of higher education, transitions into college and career, nonprofit management and standardized testing.