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Vol. LXII, No. 9
April 30, 2010

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Obama Campaign Vet
Myers Outlines New Paradigm for Leadership

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There had to have been at least a few people who left Betsy Myers’ Apr. 15 lecture on leadership with a sense of envy that they are unable to muster her preternaturally resilient reaction to workplace failure.

Myers has enjoyed plenty of personal career success at places such as the Clinton administration, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Obama campaign, which she served as chief operating officer. At least some of it owes to an ability to get up from having “skinned her knees” with an attitude not of discouragement, but of, “Isn’t that interesting!”

Her 90-minute presentation in Masur Auditorium—the third lecture in the Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series—drew on her 25 years of experience in business, academia and politics, and it didn’t mind dwelling on the upside of downside occurrences. After all, one of her key points is that leadership depends on self-knowledge, and nothing educates more urgently than failure. “We learn most when we fail,” she said.


  Betsy Myers  
  Betsy Myers  

There was the time, right out of college, when she worked as a fundraiser for a political campaign, but was fired for not really knowing the ropes. Rather than mope, Myers asked more experienced people where she had gone wrong.

And once, as director of the Office for Women in the Clinton White House, Myers inadvertently offended the First Lady by failing to keep her adequately informed of the office’s activities. Because she had cultivated so many positive workplace relationships, Myers was tipped off to Mrs. Clinton’s ire by a coworker and was able to improve her communications with the First Lady’s office without a confrontation. “That was an ‘Aha!’ moment of grand proportion,” she admitted.

Again, when Myers was named director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she sensed that her predecessor harbored some misgivings about her. Rather than ignore the vibes, Myers deliberately set out to clear the air, and won the woman’s respect, largely on her willingness to set aside her ego and plan a few informal breakfasts with the ex-director.

Bottom line? How people feel about you is crucial in determining your ability to lead. Being human, Myers emphasized, means having feelings, and if you don’t feel valued, you don’t show up for work “as your best self.”

Leadership “is really about self-knowledge,” said Myers. “If you don’t understand yourself, how can you lead other people? It’s hard to get results if you don’t know who you are.”

Myers says the new paradigm for leadership dispenses with the “command-and-control” model. “Gone are the days of ‘Do as I say!’ People want to be included, to have a voice and to be appreciated.”

Today’s enlightened leaders realize that people “desire to have a voice” and are far more willing to collaborate with others when they are assured that their input matters.

Successful leadership today means realizing that while you may not have all the answers, you are nonetheless willing to ask the questions. “The answers are inside our organizations, as well as with our constituents and customers,” Myers insisted, “and often the people below us have the answers.”

Myers says the new paradigm for leadership dispenses with the “command-and-control” model. “Gone are the days of ‘Do as I say!’ People want to be included, to have a voice and to be appreciated.”  
Myers says the new paradigm for leadership dispenses with the “command-and-control” model. “Gone are the days of ‘Do as I say!’ People want to be included, to have a voice and to be appreciated.”  

Myers touted the value of diversity, not so much as a concept involving race or gender, but as a way of gaining “diversity of perspectives and problem- solving. Research shows that diversity makes organizations more profitable and more effective.”

Myers was at Harvard when she first became aware of Obama, then a senator from Illinois. It struck her that his ideals “were part of who he was—that’s why I went to work on his campaign.

“Three years ago, Obama had less than 10 percent name recognition in the United States. That’s when I joined his campaign,” Myers said. “I didn’t think he’d win [the presidency], but I felt it would be interesting. I also thought he would be a leader on the national scene for years to come.”

What intrigued her throughout the experience was that “people were so engaged, excited and willing to give up their weekends, liquidate their retirement funds, quit their law firms…I was fascinated over and over again by the fervor. Obama said, ‘I’m taking this campaign to the people.’ He gave voice to the American people and an opportunity to participate. It was a campaign of inclusion.”

As evidence of this grassroots engagement, Myers said the average Obama campaign donation was only $100. “People felt included, communicated with, part of a team. As a field worker explained to me, ‘We came because of Barack Obama, but we stayed because of each other.’”

Rather than bemoan Obama’s lack of traditional sources of support, his campaign “used the Internet, opened more state offices and embraced new technology.” Myers said the McCain and Clinton presidential campaigns “ran a 1992 campaign in 2008. They embraced the new technology, but not to the level that we did. We ran a 2008 campaign in 2008, and embraced inclusion, empowerment, something bigger than us.”

The same approach that won the White House can win NIH labs and branches, Myers suggested. She cited a study showing that 70 percent of American workers feel disengaged from the workplace, resulting in $350 billion of lost productivity. “That means our best self is not showing up for work. The number one reason for workplace unhappiness is poor relationships with the boss.”

Myers and Colleen Barros (r), NIH deputy director for management, enjoy a conversation prior to Myers’ lecture in Masur Auditorium.
Myers and Colleen Barros (r), NIH deputy director for management, enjoy a conversation prior to Myers’ lecture in Masur Auditorium.

Supervisors can profit from being mindful of the messages their own behavior sends; they must strive to tap into the positive emotions of their employees. But that’s hard to do if they are miscast and miserable.

Myers learned from her daughter a key lesson about fulfillment: do what you love. “When did we stop freaking out with joy?” she asked, referring to her daughter’s realization that dance made her happy. “Are you in the right position for you? Does it make your heart sing?”

In a workplace characterized by constant change, and by personal behaviors she euphemistically dubbed “foolishness,” the one thing we can control is self. “You need to understand what makes you happy. And it’s okay to be happy. Life is short.”

Too often, it’s not the glass ceiling that limits career progress, but the “sticky floor. We all have our sticky floors, whether it’s being chronically late to meetings, unkind to our superiors and colleagues or to those below us” or just being scared to take a risk and change careers.

Myers concluded with a litany of take-home messages—literally; she insisted her advice is as good at home as on the job:

  • Understand your stakeholders, the people who care about what you are doing.
  • Have the courage to ask for honest feedback. For example, “What could I be doing differently?”
  • Try to fix troubled relationships.
  • Challenge your assumptions.
  • Build your relationships.
  • Remember, “Your success is predicated on how people around you feel about you.”
  • Remember to thank people—handwritten notes trump email in this regard.
  • Be clear in your own mind about what success looks like.
  • Catch people doing things right.
  • Avoid an “inbox life” (frittering the day away with email) and adhere to your to-do list.
  • Lastly, be aware that career success is up to you—if it ain’t fun, fix it.

For the full lecture, visit NIHRecord Icon

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