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Career Coach: From Fenty's loss, lessons on leadership

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By Paul Tesluk
Monday, September 20, 2010

When Adrian Fenty assumed the reins as mayor of Washington in January 2007, there was much hope and optimism. Like in his first run for councilman, Fenty, the underdog, ran a relentless door-to-door mayoral campaign in the hotly contested Democratic primary. His resounding victories in the primary, in which he won all 142 of the city's precincts, and then in the general election ushered in a promised energetic and hands-on approach to city government and a willingness to take on the city's toughest problems.

On his first official day in office, Fenty introduced legislation to restructure the city schools. He brought in Michelle Rhee to lead the effort as chancellor. Fenty also quickly moved to bring a fresh approach to combating crime, selecting Cathy Lanier as police chief and investing significantly in increasing the number of officers and community policing initiatives. There was a great deal of hope and optimism about this energetic new mayor.

How quickly things have changed. Fenty lost his reelection bid last Tuesday to challenger Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary. While Gray ran a strong campaign and Fenty and his team made several missteps, this was more than a political story. It was also a story about the failures Adrian Fenty made as a leader.

Fenty is by no means alone. As an experienced executive coach and professor studying leadership, I have seen countless new managers who were rapidly rising superstars who achieved outstanding results in largely individual contributor roles struggle, and even fail, when taking on a significant new leadership responsibility. And the mistakes these people have made are often very similar.

In short, what gets people into management positions won't necessarily make them successful leaders. Here are some important leadership lessons managers can take from Fenty's mayoral demise.

1. Don't lose sight of the process while achieving results. While results are critical, leaders who focus primarily on achieving them may face sharp challenges to their decisions -- as well as significantly weakened results -- if they fail to take steps to ensure that people feel that outcomes are just, provide accompanying fair processes in making decisions and pushing change forward and maintain high levels of sensitivity to those they are leading. Research has found that effective leadership requires leaders attend to all three of those issues. Fenty made mistakes in all of them.

Although he quickly focused on two issues fundamental to the city (righting the long-broken school system and reducing crime), he largely ignored feedback that he focus more attention on other issues viewed as critical by key constituencies, such as reducing the city's widening poverty gap and taking on the District's AIDS epidemic.

Even more problematic for Fenty was that he did not actively engage with key stakeholder groups and push forward his agenda for change in ways that provided high levels of transparency and perceived fairness. For instance, many teachers and parent groups, the D.C. teachers' union, City Council and other critical stakeholders were either pushed aside or given little attention in designing solutions, making critical decisions and being regularly informed about plans and considerations.

Finally, Fenty distanced himself from key community and political leaders to the point that he was seen as often insensitive, cold, aloof and uncaring about their needs and points of view.

2. Encourage candor. Emphasize -- actually, overemphasize -- open, upward communications, particularly on negative news and perspectives that challenge your own views. Instead of building a team environment in which political advisers, city administrators and other close political officials could offer diverse perspectives and points of view, Fenty overrelied on what had made him a successful councilman -- a dogged determination to trust his own judgment and instincts. By the time Fenty did start to seek out updated polling data and revamp his campaign message, it was too little, too late.

3. Learn as you go. This is actually the most critical lesson -- and perhaps the most challenging. Leaders who adopt a strong orientation toward learning actively seek out developmental feedback, often from their toughest critics. They reflect on that feedback, work to extract lessons from key successes and failures, and seek out learning partners in the form of mentors and coaches.

Fenty's reaction to a Washington Post poll in late January was telling. Instead of being interested in the data and seeking how he could learn from it, he dismissed the poll and told the Post days after its release that he had yet to even examine it. At a critical point in his term, he lost an opportunity to challenge himself and strengthen his leadership.

These three lessons are learning points all managers thrust into leadership roles need to master. While the outcome of the election is undoubtedly deeply disappointing to Mayor Fenty, the good news for him is that experience can be the best teacher ... even if it comes from the school of hard knocks.

Paul Tesluk is the Ralph J. Tyser professor of organizational behavior and human resource management in the Department of Management and Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He is chair of the Department of Management and Organization at Smith and co-director of the newly formed Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change.

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