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John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.
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Getting a job done

Question: Finding and killing Osama bin Laden has required focus, patience and persistence from presidents and top government officials over a decade of repeated setbacks--qualities that are in short supply in a world where time horizons are becoming increasingly short. How can leaders resist the natural temptation to move on to other priorities when goals begin to look like they might be out of reach?

Presidents, like all senior leaders, do not have the luxury of focusing on their priorities and only those priorities.

President Obama campaigned on a platform of health-care reform as well as focusing our military efforts on Afghanistan rather than Iraq. Getting bin Laden was also a priority, but it was down the list of things the president had to do.

Recall in January 2009 when Obama came to office, his first priority was to help right the economy, and that included managing the bailout of auto companies and banks as well as initiating an economic stimulus plan.

But as the president made clear in his speech announcing bin Laden’s death, bringing the terrorist mastermind to justice was always a priority.  It was in the form of a direct order to CIA chief Leon Panetta.

What leaders can learn from our government’s pursuit of bin Laden is that leaders need to multi-task. Those with large staffs can do so easily, but delegation is not the same as execution. Just because there is a standing directive does not mean it will be implemented. Leaders need to stay engaged on issues of importance otherwise the organization becomes distracted.

This is where managing priorities comes to the fore. Franklin Roosevelt prided himself on his ability to get many things going at the same time. In fact, in reference to mobilizing the nation for war, he once referred to himself as “a juggler.”

Where executives get into trouble, and at times FDR fell victim to his own inconsistencies, was in having too many things going at the same time. This is very distracting to the organization, because its members follow the leader’s initiative. If the leader is focused on one thing, it may mean loss of interest in another. And so folks slack off.

For example, if a CEO is committed to reducing costs, some employees may assume it is a cover for easing up on quality. Or vice versa, an emphasis on quality may seem to incur greater costs. Perceived inconsistences make it difficult not only for the leader but also for employees and customers.

The challenge for leaders is to focus on what is important to the institution and follow through on it. But at the same time, to make certain that doing one thing at a time is not acceptable. Leaders need to challenge their management teams to follow through on their objectives, even when senior leadership is focused elsewhere.

Getting bin Laden is a tribute to our president’s ability to get things done; but it also is a tribute, as the president said, to the many intelligence and military personnel who made this priority reality. 

View all panel responses to the discussion The Osama bin Laden mission, and the art of persistence

John Baldoni  | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM

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