Leadership lessons from Governor Chris Christie and the bridge lane closing scandal

The “Bridge” crisis swirling around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become a pivotal test of his leadership skills to survive a major threat to his promising political career.

The events before and after the bridge lane closings and the actions of Governor Christie and members of his inner circle of advisors offers several examples of good and bad leadership and management practices.

Here are the examples of good leadership and management:

Surround yourself with loyal, committed and smart people – The credit for Governor Christie’s political success as a Republican in a majority Democratic Party state must go in no small measure to the skills of his senior staff. What was true in political life is also relevant in the executive suite or a small business.

Delegate responsibility to subordinates and do not interfere – A state governor or a CEO cannot be effective unless they delegate authority to their management team. In Governor Christie’s own words: “I am not a micromanager.” He repeatedly emphasized during his recent public atonements for the bridge lane closings that he willingly delegates functional responsibility to his senior staff, because he trusted them. Notwithstanding published reports from several sources that he is a micromanager over every aspect of the policies and actions coming out of his office, Governor Christie is correct. A leader in business or politics needs to have trusted and competent managers to handle the details, so that he/she can lead.

Accept responsibility in front of the world when something big goes wrong – Governor Christie has been publicly apologizing non-stop over the past two weeks for the actions of his staff. He said repeatedly “I take responsibility for their actions” to stem the growing outrage about disclosures that his senior staff had arranged the bridge lane closings during rush hours as a political payback to the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, NJ for not endorsing Governor Christie for a second term. Christie deserves praise for being very visible while taking a lot of heat and doing damage control to a situation that was spiraling out of control. He was apologetic, open and not defensive. He projected leadership and determination to make amends for mistakes made under his watch.

Hold subordinates accountable – Governor Christie told his constituents that he accepted responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. He also severely punished staff members who had direct involvement in closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge during rush hour. Two of Christie’s closest senior aides were fired and two his appointees to the New Jersey-New York Bridge Authority were forced to resign. He showed that even the most senior and trusted staff members would be held accountable for their actions. Governor Christie denied any prior knowledge of his staff’s actions and expressed anger at having been misled by trusted subordinates. If evidence surfaces that shows Christie was indeed in the information loop on the bridge lane closings, it will be interesting to see what actions the Governor takes to hold himself accountable.

And here are the examples of bad leadership and management:

Failure to heed flashing warning lights that a crisis was on the horizon – The immediate loud public uproar over the bridge lane closings during rush hour was a missed signal that a crisis in the making. In hindsight, Governor Christie’s decision to accept his staff’s explanations for the incident was a mistake. Perhaps, because his reelection campaign was in full swing, he didn’t want did deeper and turn the bridge-closing incident into a troublesome campaign issue. Instead, the Governor chose to avoid rather than engage a crisis in the making. In business, a CEO that fails to decisively address looming crises on the horizon is putting his/her company at risk for financial, legal and reputational problems, not to mention his or her career.

Fostering an organizational culture that communicates to subordinates that crossing ethical boundaries is acceptable – The voters expect that their governor and his/her administration will carry out the functions of government in the best interest of the people and to uphold the highest ethical standards. On the other hand, the voters are under no illusions about political campaigns. They are rough and tumble affairs. Nonetheless, the voters still want political campaigns to be conducted in a legal and ethical manner. The actions of Governor Christie’s staff crossed ethical lines during the election campaign. Revelations about the actions of Governor Christie’s senior staff in the bridge lane closings and subsequent allegations of political bullying by other New Jersey mayors suggests to the reasonable person that unethical behavior is acceptable in the Christie administration. Whether the Governor knowingly condoned unethical behavior, or just looked the other way, he needs to take immediate steps to adjust his administration’s organizational culture or be viewed as guilty as his fired senior aides.

Trust But Verify – President Ronald Reagan used these words to characterize the post-Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union as policies of mutually assured destruction were exchanged for cooperation. The commitment to peace and friendship between Soviet President Gorbachev and President Reagan, and later with President George H.W. Bush, was undeniable. Nonetheless, the American and Russian policies that led to disarmament had built in measures for verifying that each side was living up to their end of the agreement. There is little doubt that Governor Christie and his senior staff shared a distinct bond of trust. Governor Christie’s error was to sit in a cocoon of his own making. By his own admission, Governor Christie said he relied on his staff for information on the bridge lane issue. A political and business leader needs to have third-party sources to act as reality checks and, yes, to verify what trusted senior advisors are telling him. In the future, Governor Christie would do well to follow the advice of one of his political heroes, Ronald Reagan.

The bridge lane closing incident has resulted in ongoing state and federal investigations into the actions of Governor Christie’s staff and to determine what Governor Christie knew and when. So far, Governor Christie has demonstrated good leadership and a willingness to acknowledge mistakes. The next real test of leadership for Governor Christie will come when potentially damaging disclosures surface during the upcoming state and federal investigations. Stay tuned.

The time is now for visionary leadership in the Ukraine

Sunday’s referendum in Crimea will almost certainly favor breaking away from the Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. Russia has troops on Ukraine’s Eastern border and threatening a military intervention to protect ethnic Russians from violence by “fascists” in Kyiv who ousted Former President Yanukovych.

The armed forces of Ukraine and Russia are on full alert and tensions are high throughout the country, especially in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The worst-case scenario is for the start of armed conflict in response to provocations or random clashes between supporters and opponents of Ukraine’s interim government that leads to Russian troops crossing the border and a military response from the Ukrainian military, which then escalates into all-out war and a hazardous East-West confrontation with unknown but likely tragic consequences.

The interim government leadership and potential presidential candidates must act rapidly to articulate a unifying vision for Ukraine’s political and economic future that provides a compelling case for ethnic Russians to remain citizens of Ukraine, and helps to build trust among all Ukrainians that they have the ability to bring stability and order to their communities.

The crisis response of the leadership of Ukraine’s interim government must obviously focus on the national security threats posed by Russian troops. But it should also immediately start an intense campaign to win the hearts and minds of all Ukrainians, especially ethnic Russians, to counter the narrative that the government in Kyiv condones right wing violence, and to communicate a message that all ethnic groups will be part of a new Ukraine.

The time for transcendent political leadership is now. The model for this kind of visionary leadership is Nelson Mandela. He showed it when he assumed the leadership of South Africa after years of brutal Apartheid policies. Instead of retribution against the White minority he united the country with a vision for all South Africans. His call for forgiveness over revenge was reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to a divided country after four bloody years of civil war to renew its commitment to rebuild as one nation.

Several commentators have written that none of Ukraine’s leaders in the interim government or potential presidential candidates are visionary leaders. I argue that visionary leadership often emerges in the heat of a crisis and the necessity for bold action. We witnessed an example of transcendent leadership from Interim Prime Minister Yatsenyuk when he reassured the residents of Crimea that there would be no retribution against them if the results of the referendum favor breaking away from the Ukraine.

The message of reconciliation also needs to be matched by actions. The first could be to nullify the ill advised law passed by the Verhovnaya Rada that downgraded Russian language as an official language. It should also strongly condemn any statements or actions by groups that support discrimination or violence against ethnic Russians, and remove any leaders in the interim government if they are shown to be the source of these divisive views.

There is much to be learned from Mr. Yanukovych’s mistakes. He dithered away the essential qualities for any successful leader, credibility and trust, long before protestors took over Maidan Square. The loss began when he failed to recognize that only visionary leadership could bring together Ukraine’s ethnic and political groups to support a national vision for Ukraine’s future. Instead, his leadership was anything but visionary. His obsession with silencing his most prominent political adversary, Yulia Tymoshenko, and undermining any other potential challengers to his reelection campaign in 2015 showed that maintaining power and partisan gains were his primary concerns.

One essential quality of leadership that Mr. Yanukovych did not have was the ability to recognize that his perception of the world was incomplete and a dramatic change of course was needed to avert major problems.

Nobel Prize laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, called this lack of leadership insight bounded rationality where leaders make important strategic decisions that ultimately fail based on information filtered through the prism of a leader’s limited perception of reality. Simon argued leaders should recognize and compensate for the cognitive limits of perception in the decision-making process.

The political leadership of Ukraine needs to stand above partisan and ethnic divides of the past and lead with a new vision of the future for all Ukrainians, regardless of ethnic origin. The time for Ukraine’s Mandela to emerge is now.

A responsible approach to deciphering russia’s next move

What country is Russia’s next target after Crimea? Some politicians and pundits are parsing every statement made by President Putin and other Russian government officials to answer that question. They say eastern and southern Ukraine, Transnistria, Georgia and the Baltic States are threatened by Russian aggression.

But they are focusing on the wrong question. The important question today is about Ukraine and whether it is in Russia’s national interest to annex eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian Federation through a combination of regional referendums and possible military action?

Russia has already conducted the cost/benefit analysis on Crimea. Much of it still applies to southern and eastern Ukraine. The benefits from the Russian perspective are likely to be:

• The rights of ethnic Russians to speak Russian would be guaranteed.

• Russia would replace the ineffective interim government and protect ethnic Russians from violent anti-Russian terrorists.

• Through “fair” referendums, Russia could annex eastern and southern Ukraine, and gain a larger buffer between Russia proper and a hostile Ukraine.

• The popularity of President Putin and his administration will stay at all time highs.

• The image of a strong Russia that is unafraid to use its military power to protect its national interests will be strengthened.

While the upsides look good, the downsides are not so good:

• Western sanctions will be increased and have more significant impacts on major and minor businesses, and start to have discernible impacts on the overall economy, e.g., more capital flight, huge drop in credit ratings, FDI, etc.

• The Putin Administration’s support from business, industry and the population will be strained if the sanctions result in economic hardships.

• Ukraine will be in the West’s orbit. The loss of Ukraine will be a blow to the Eurasian Economic Union (Customs Union), which is struggling to gain new members.

• Russia’s allies in the Near Abroad will distance themselves from Russia even further. For example, Belarusian President Lukashenka said publicly that Russia’s annexation of Crimea sets a bad precedent.

• Russia will be condemned by the international community and thrown out of the G-8, isolated like a pariah state (Frankly, I think the West takes this more seriously than Russia does.).

President Putin is a pragmatic leader. It’s likely that he has already weighed the costs and the benefits of annexing eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian Federation. He will act on the conditions that offer the best chances for more benefits and fewer costs.

Russia is pushing for changes to Ukraine’s constitution to create a federal government, which would give regional governments more political power and autonomy. It would also create the conditions for eastern and southern Ukraine to hold referendums to determine if they would like to stay with Ukraine or join Russia. Russia’s support for regional referendums would entail lower risks and potentially big gains if victorious at the polls.

If instability and ethnic violence, whether organic or incited, continues in eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia’s options are riskier. A military intervention would inevitably result in a confrontation with Ukraine’s defense forces and newly recruited national guards. The potential for the military conflict to escalate would be high. The West would be under pressure to provide more military aid to Ukraine. Russia would also likely be designated as a national security threat for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Whether you agree or not, Russia demonstrated in Crimea that it would take decisive action to protect its national interests. The costs and the benefits of annexing Crimea were carefully weighed. The same calculus will be done on eastern and southern Ukraine.

The incendiary speculations on Russia’s next target reported in the media will generate readers, but does little to provide any real analysis of the situation. It will also unduly frighten people. For example, the Baltic States were often included on the list of Russia’s targets. That’s the most unlikely option because they are NATO members and would have every member of NATO coming to their aid, including the US.

In the dynamic situation in Ukraine, there is no way of knowing for sure what will happen next. However, having an understanding of Russia’s national interests and those of Ukraine and the West and the costs and benefits of strategic decisions will make you better informed and less prone to be frightened by the wild and irresponsible speculations of so-called opinion leaders who should know better.

Russia should lead the way towards peace and stop a humanitarian crisis in ukraine

Russia’s leadership in helping to resolve the crisis in Ukraine is desperately needed. A proactive Russia could help to find a path to a peaceful resolution and win the respect of the global community for its leadership. Instead, Russia has rejected further multilateral talks to stop the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is increasingly lurching towards a civil war and possible war with Russia. The amount of death and destruction for Ukraine will be unthinkable, as well as the security and economic crisis of global proportions that will be ignited. The global community has lots of examples since the dissolution of the Soviet Union when major powers failed to take timely actions to stop a human tragedy in the making, such as the Balkans, Rwanda and the Sudan.

On Tuesday, May 6th, Russia rejected calls from the Council of Europe for multilateral talks on Ukraine, saying Ukraine has failed to live up to the April 17th Geneva Agreement.

In the past few months, Russia has called UN Security Council meetings on the crisis in Ukraine thirteen times. According to news reports, the May 2nd meeting was like the rest with Russia’s UN ambassador blaming the US and Europe. Not once did Russia suggest the option of a ceasefire and empowering the UN to intervene to reduce tensions and violence.

The UN could provide mediators and peacekeeping forces to enforce a ceasefire between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces while talks between Russia, Ukraine, EU and the US took place. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can be given this authority with the unanimous consent of the UN Security Council.

In my opinion, if Russia supported a UN peacekeeping initiative to help de-escalate the crisis, the other Security Council members would agree. Unfortunately, this has not happened. If another member of the Security Council made the proposal, I think Russia would almost certainly veto the measure. Thus, we have geopolitical gridlock.

Russia and all members of the UN Security Council know the tragic lessons of the 20th Century. The geopolitics behind the positions on Ukraine taken by Russia are valid from the standpoint that any country has a legitimate right to advocate for its national interests. But, now is the time for Russia to show global leadership on Ukraine. Russia, as well as Ukraine, suffered so terribly from wars, famine and revolutions during the 20th Century. That should be enough of a grim reminder to do the right thing.

The speech I hope Ukraine’s new president gives at the inauguration ceremony

As I think about Sunday’s presidential election in strife torn Ukraine, I am reminded of US President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address on March 4, 1865.

After four bitter years of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln told Americans that at the end of the bloody conflict that would take over 600,000 soldier’s lives to not seek vengeance against the rebels and “to bind the nation’s wounds; ….to do all which may achieve justice and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” In a little more than 30 days, Lincoln himself would be struck down by an assassin, another casualty of a conflict between citizens of the same country.

The winner of tomorrow’s election will face the challenge of uniting a nation disillusioned by years of willful neglect by corrupt political leaders. The motivations fueling the separatist movements in eastern and southern Ukraine are as much about deeply held frustrations against a self-serving and inept government in Kyiv as they are about provocations by Russia.

In his or her speech at the inauguration ceremony, I hope the new president will provide a vision of unity and hope to counter the climate of instability that has helped to fuel the violence that has taken the lives of Ukrainians, both pro-Kyiv and pro-separatist. When citizens have rule of law and civil rights they feel secure and less prone to respond with violence to provocations.

Lincoln spoke of reconciliation between opposing sides to realize justice and lasting peace. This will be as important to Ukraine today as it was for the United States one hundred and forty-nine years ago. The next president of Ukraine will need to communicate a vision of a big tent for everyone, whatever their views, to achieve the common goal of building a united country. Leaders like Lincoln and, more recently, Mandela understood the importance of rising above hate and prejudice to heal deep wounds in a divided nation.

Lincoln also understood the need for a lasting peace “with all nations” for the United States to fully recover from a civil war that had geopolitical consequences for its neighbors and trading partners. The incoming president of Ukraine will need to lead this process by creating a multi-lateral dialogue with Russia, the EU and the US to address issues of territorial sovereignty, ethnic rights and access to energy.

If I had the ability, I would channel President Lincoln’s spirit into Ukraine’s new president. In the absence of those skills, I hope that a greater power has been listening to my thoughts and is ready to help out.

Adjusting To The New Normal In An Increasingly Uncertain World

Lately, I have been lying awake all too often worrying about my children’s future. Political upheavals in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and the South China Sea, will likely redefine not just political boundaries, but also the global security framework, and have potentially serious impacts on the global economy now and in the future.

In our global economy, incidents in far away places can have significant impacts on our daily lives. If Russia and Ukraine go to war after a particularly violent clash between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, this will undoubtedly trigger more U.S. and EU economic sanctions against Russia and harsh counter measures against American and European businesses operating in Russia. The negative consequences to global energy and financial markets could be significant, and put at risk the global economic recovery.

Cyber crime is a potential global threat that is as close to us as our laptop computers and mobile devices. The theft of our identities, personal wealth and intellectual property has become an all too common occurrence. Reports of customer data breaches at major companies, trade secrets stolen by foreign governments and criminals and identity theft are becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

Managing these challenges will require both pragmatic and visionary leadership and collaboration from government, business and community groups. In the face of global disruptions, the goal should be more sustainability and less vulnerability to crises.

I am heartened by the growing consensus for action to address the challenges of the “new normal”. There has been a dearth of rational voices calling for long-term strategies to address 21st Century challenges, especially in the U.S. government. The short-term planning mindset of quarterly earnings and election year cycles are not up to the task of preparing for the impacts of a future that looks to be even more disruptive and uncertain than it is today.