Leading When Everything’s Going Wrong


A good part of my professional – and work  life (from 1985 through 2005) was as the CEO of a Michigan-based company (Robotron Corporation).  In my time running that auto supplier, I had a front-row seat from which to observe the decline and ultimate implosion of the US auto industry culminating in the dramatic bankruptcies at both Chrysler and GM.

There are many lessons from this experience that I am sure I will tell in future articles, but the story I want to talk about today isn’t mine, but of the former two-term Michigan Governor, Jennifer Granholm.  When she became the first woman in history to serve as that State’s Governor in 2003, she became a great role-model for ambitious young girls in America. There was a time she was seen as a rising star in her party, and many people thought surely that she would be a national Presidential (or at least a VP) candidate one day.  All she needed was a success story in her home state to establish her credentials.

As you all probably know (unless you have been living under a large rock), her fate was not to build a story of success – but one of managing through crisis and collapse.  It is hard for me to imagine where one turns to gather the strength of character needed to withstand the almost weekly barrage of bad economic and industrial news.  If you are objective you have to agree that she did not personally cause the decline – even though her political enemies would claim she should personally be held responsible for ruining the industrial belt, the declining market share of US car makers, the inadequate creation of new small businesses, the State’s lack of economic diversity, pressing social problems, the near collapse of the city of Detroit and its public school system, and so on).  Whew!   (I wonder if, when she ran for reelection in 2006, she believed the next four years would be better than the previous ones.)

Then the financial meltdown of 2008 happened and things got even worse. The immediate effects were catastrophic. Granholm’s grand plans for education reform, economic revitalization, clean energy, and infrastructure development were swamped by the “perfect [economic] storm”. As Granholm writes, “The reality of manufacturing in America was undeniable. The jobs were gone, and they weren’t coming back.”

All the State budget projections are based on projected tax revenues, which are based on the health of the economy, and of the State’s tax-paying businesses and wage earners.   During her second term, the State was burning through cash like a GM Hummer burns hydrocarbons.  After 2008, the revenue plans were completely shot, and the news headlines from Lansing for months focused only on what could be cut, taken away, or done without – none of which are a political advisor’s dream.

I think it safe to say that almost anyone can manage an organization in an improving market.  (I can certainly attest to that in my own business – rising revenues help cover lots of sins.)  But it is interesting to question what it takes to lead through such lasting crisis?

It doesn’t matter if you agreed with a single one of her policy initiatives.  How would you have fared, managing in such a challenging environment?   What are the leadership lessons?

As it turns on Granholm and her husband (Dan Mulhern) have just released her new memoir A Governor’s Story  where they share some of their lessons learned.

The book is an interesting one that begs the question: Should a leader tell that she’s not sure?  Tell that she’s struggling, too? Tell people that (although she has a plan) she cannot be sure that it will work? That seems to be counter to professional political wisdom, which suggests that we act like FDR proclaiming “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself”, and then assign blame for everything to your political opponents.

While I think we want leaders to tell us “everything’s gonna be fine,” and that “it’s all under control,” we create expectations that lead to disappointment and increases our mistrust of leaders. What do you think? How real would you let yourself be?

Here are three lessons Granholm writes about in the book.

1. Keep playing offense. As factories were shutting their doors, the state opened trade missions in several foreign cities.  Granholm herself made overseas trips to attract foreign investment, like from smaller Asian and European companies that were trying to get a foothold in the US market.

2. Combat denial where you can. A study commissioned by the Governor reported in 2004, that only a third of adults in Michigan had a college degree. And that “only 27 percent of parents felt that it was essential for their children to get a college education.” The Governor continually spoke on this point challenging citizens to consider how they could build a 21st century economy without a 21st century workforce?  Partly as a result of these insights the state worked to reform its high school curriculum to focus more on college preparation and readiness, requiring students to take the ACT college entrance exam.

3. Get over the messiah complex. Our culture loves the idea of a heroic leader that snatches victory from within the jaws of defeat.   Granholm confesses to being enamored with the idea that she could save Michigan and restore all its glory.  But she needed to accept the reality that in two terms, she (and perhaps no) politician could reverse years of shortsighted business decisions in Detroit, undue the globalization of world markets, overcome years of corruption in Detroit  to make it a top tourist destination, or create world-beating schools with a shrinking budget.

For those of you who yourselves navigated through such dark or turbulent times, how did you do it?  What did you learn?

Here is a 3 minute clip of Ms. Granholm talking about her experience.

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1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Strategy, Systems Thinking

One response to “Leading When Everything’s Going Wrong

  1. Pingback: Managing Through Chaos | lenbrzozowski

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