Governing is not a Good Profession for Heroes

Being a hero calls for big and bold, while governing demands down and dirty.

On August 2, 2007, then-candidate Barak Obama first offered a pledge that he would often repeat during the presidential campaign. He promised, “As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”

That was a popular position for a presidential candidate to take, because a majority of Americans had become revolted by scenes of prisoner abuse and flagrant torture, causing America to forfeit the high ground of morality when compared with the terrorists. In short, Americans were eager for a leader who would solve those issues and put them in the past.

How is the Obama promise going so far?

Not good at all.

It’s now six years later and “Gitmo” is still open with 122 detainees, making it the longest-standing war prison in U.S. history. Moreover, the Military Commissions Act is 2001-detaineesstill the primary judicial system for dealing with suspected terrorists and that act basically denies captured suspected terrorists any rights under the American jurisprudence system. Their court of last resort is military tribunals. Lastly, there have arguably been violations of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution in dealing with both American and foreign born suspected terrorists.

There is little doubt that Obama was genuine in his desire to fulfill his promise (along with many others), but he ran dead-smack into the political reality that – at least in the American form of government – it is easier to promise than perform. Obama’s dream of being the hero doing big and bold things collided with the reality that governing demands down and dirty work. President Obama is not the first, nor will he be the last to fall prey to the striking difference between leading and governing.

Those who run for President of the United States are motivated by many desires, but none is stronger than the craving for the power and the glory that comes with being the hero who will save the day. The problem is that once elected president, they have to govern the country and that always gets in the way of being a hero.


This is a conundrum for those who yearn to be president. The electorate longs for the heroic leader who will come riding in on a white steed to solve the problems and cure the ills of the country. Yet, the structure of our government is bipolar. It assigns the President the responsibility for creating policy and solving problems, but the power to do so is diffused. In the long run, this is most certainly a good thing, but it does mean that the president is less CEO and more COO, chief operating officer. Can you name one COO who is recognized as a “business hero?” Neither can I. And it is this mixed-message of the electorate pining for a heroic leader, but demanding an effective manager that forces the candidate for president to promise more than can be delivered and then, once in office, deliver less than has been promised. This results in a frustrated president, a disillusioned electorate and the problems being kicked down the road, waiting for the next “hero” to take them on.

Learn from government what not to do in business

This muddled confusion in government between the desire for a heroic leader who can offer a bold vision and the expectation of efficient management offers a good lesson for those who seek to be “heroes” in the business world.

First off, never accept a job filled with responsibility, but devoid of the authority to get the job done. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many who seek to move up in an organization accept new responsibility without confirming, let alone demanding, the authority to do the job. This can only lead to frustration and failure.

On the other side of the coin, when you are in a position of leadership – especially if you want to be a hero – it is critical never to promise more than can be delivered and always NeverPromisedeliver more than is promised. This is true for all parties to the business equation: those you work for, those who work for you and the customers you serve. Nothing destroys the credibility and confidence in a leader more than to promise more than is delivered. If you promise the moon, make sure you can deliver it – and it will be even better if you end up including the stars along with it.

It is difficult to be big and bold while getting down and dirty

It may be a cliché, but it is true that accomplishing great things is a team effort. Every team needs a leader, but every leader needs a team, too. As is said in sports, true team leaders, no matter how talented they may be, are most effective when they encourage others to be involved and get better and then allows all to bask in the glory of the accomplishment. It is no different in business.

The number one responsibility of any heroic leader is to be big and bold. To offer a clear vision that is challenging, inspiring and motivating, but that is not enough. The leader must put in place the actions that need to be done to accomplish the vision; this is accomplished by empowering, motivating and rewarding others to get down and dirty to do them. This allows the leader to present the vision for accomplishment and problem solving, and remain focused on it, while others concentrate on doing what needs to be done to make the vision a reality.

At the formation of LifeUSA – a startup life insurance company – my vision was that within five years the company would be a national company competing heads-up against – and beating – the biggest companies in the industry. My promise to those willing to join in and do the down and dirty work in what was seemingly an impossible effort, was that they would all share in the rewards for helping to make the vision a reality.

My responsibility as the leader was to keep the vision in the forefront and focused, while at the same time providing the encouragement, support, tools and – most important of all – the sharing of power that would allow others who had the ability to get down and dirty to do the things necessary to accomplish the vision.

And guess what? It worked. In five years LifeUSA was a national company competing effectively against the largest companies in the industry. And seven years after that, the promise of sharing in the value created was delivered when LifeUSA was sold to Allianz at a value of more than $500 million. All of those who relied on the promise made to to share in the value of the company, will tell you to this day that they received more than had been promised. I may have been considered the hero, but the real heroes were those who bought into the promise of shared rewards and got down and dirty to make the big and bold possible.

This just might be a good lesson for those who want to be President.

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