Good Morning Connecticut TV Interview

TV interview with Trond Arne Undheim on WTNH (Channel 8, New Haven, CT, USA) on Leadership From Below. The hardback is available on and the paperback is available on


Can President Obama Exhibit Leadership From Below?

So Obama won, McCain lost. Republicans are out. Democrats are in.  What now? Obama has campaigned on change, on being the challenger, on being different. He has deployed a web savvy campaign strategy focused on micro contributions from hoards in addition to, not instead of, large donations. All of this is very trendy, very smart and very well known by now. See, for instance, Eric Legale’s blog on Obama as the President of the Internet Generation.

What few have pointed out is that Candidate Obama preached and practiced Leadership From Below. For a quick tutorial, check my post on What my Daughter Taught me about Leadership. But how can a President Obama exhibit Leadership From Below? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? After all, it is arguably the most powerful position in the world. Why would the President need Leadership From Below?

In fact, there are five reasons why Obama still needs the bottom-up perspective:

1. Formal power if fine, but not enough

Leadership from below does not mean that you cannot have formal power. It does not mean that you need to be the underdog. It does not mean begging to lead or begging people to support you. Rather, it simply says: to enact change, I need to inspire followership. The recent book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders by Harvard Kennedy School‘s Barbara Kellerman is right on. You can only lead when you are allowing people around you to voice their concerns. Leadership From Below means never assuming you are the only voice in the room, even if you always have the last word.

2.Macchiavelli is out of date

Macchiavelli, who has been the elite’s unchallenged management guru since the 15th century said it is better to be feared than to be loved. The reason is that when you are loved, you can still be fooled, but when you are feared any challenger is a fool. The trouble with fear is that it is very unpredictable. It was ok to be a feared dictator in the Italian Renaissance, it is not ok to be a feared President in 2009. Public perception is volatile. When markets operate in fear, they collapse. When people are afraid, they turn to terror. When co-workers fear you, they simply change employer. In short, Machiavelli is out of date. Leaders should recognize that centuries have passed and complexity has increased. Not by much, I would say, but enough that it is safer to be loved than feared.

3. The US has a complex constituency

Being President does not only mean being the President of a country. You are also a global actor. The case could be made that there are more Obama supporters who did not have the right to vote than did, if you count 2/3 of citizens in Europe, and many, many across the world. Seldom has a campaign invigorated so many non voting parties, people, and pundits. While the US President does have formal power over the US mainland, his powers over the world are severely limited. Well, his powers are limited unless he plays his cards well. I believe the George W. Bush era slogan was “if you are not with us you are against us”. It didn’t play so well. Leadership from below is the way to go when you are building partnerships, trying to enlist opponents, working through intermediaries, in short, when engaging in diplomacy.

4. To enact change, a leader must be consistent

Leaders without formal authority need tech savvy, listening skills, social antennas, and a good pitch. With these you can master any situation. Many Presidents have had at least the latter two, but have let all of these skills go when they took office. But Obama will need to maintain them. The credibility of his message depends on staying open, approachable, and diplomatic. The formal authority of a Presidential office might stay largely the same when a new President takes office, but what he or she makes of it does not.

5. Military and financial crises demand buy-in

It would be easy to think that the military and the financial sector are best governed top-down. After all, employees in both sectors are well used to taking orders from above. However, it seems clear to most people that this approach has not worked and will not work, at least not now. The US is slowly coming to terms with a world where followership is more important than leadership. In his new book Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin talks about the renewed importance of the tribal type of leadership in contemporary society. We want a leader, but we want a stake in where we are being led and why. When the military spends most of its time winning hearts and minds instead of firing bullets, and the largest banks suddenly are state owned, the model is about to change. Stakeholder leadership is suddenly in fashion. As citizens we have bought ourselves a share in the the financial meltdown. As citizens of the world, we have a stake in reducing terror and unrest. A President that does not see it as his first priority to win buy in for his views, will fail. Unilateralism is out. Multilateralism is in. Buyout is out. Buyin is in.

May Obama and his advisers read this blog and have a great day. Enjoy the first day as President elect. Best wishes, and, my advice is, stay the underdog!

Five things My Daughter Taught me about Leadership

I have a two year old daughter to whom I dedicated Leadership From Below. I believe she embodies the principle. She has absolutely no formal power, she is clearly a small thing who has a lot to learn about life. One would think she lacked the size, experience, or economic resources to pursue great things. On the other hand, I have discovered that she very often gets her way. Why is that?

1. Be persistent.

When I dedicated my book to her, I admit I was thinking of her qualities like persistence, dedication, stubbornness, and willingness to go to extreme measures. All of these are important to bottom-up leadership where you do not have a lot of formal power, such as in team work, when working with competitors, or in any kind of partnership. Management books and managers had better take notice soon – and knowledge workers are using these principles daily. So, let’s turn to my daughter, who is two. For instance, if she has indicated she wants something, say a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she will pursue her idea until it gets there, even if there are very good reasons why she would not get one, such as she just ate, we are in the car without easy access to food, or we are making something else for that meal. Resisting leadership from below occurs at great peril, if you are dealing with passionate believers. They will simply not give up. Persistence is largely a good quality in life. You can accomplish more if you are prepared to work at it, even if the environment initially is hostile to your ideas or you do not see immediate results. However, not everyone is persistent, and not all persistence does in the end lead to success. So, there must be more to her shrewdness. Maybe persistence only pays off if you…

2. Build an unbreakable bond.

Having reflected on this a bit more, I found something even more important: the leverage she has through the unbreakable bond she has created between herself and her significant others, indeed everyone who spends time with her. For example, she is her uncle’s favorite, he refuses to discipline her and leaves the room when she is sad, to avoid being associated with causing any pain. He explores the good side of the little princess and lets her parents handle the rest. What that bond does is that it creates an unbreakable allegiance to her, her actions, opinions, viewpoints, and desires, even the ones that are clearly counterproductive, cause things to break, or are really painful. This week, for instance, my daughter decided to put our telephone in the toilet. We scolded her a bit for it, but it is now just a good story. Also, for some inexplicable reason, after we dried out it, it is now working again. Does her bond extend to objects, too?

3. Make your way the natural way.

My point is this, leadership is about building relationships, only then can you have influence. Trying to push your will through without strong relationships with people around you will only cause resentment. However, if you have a unique position built on repeated interactions where you have shown you care about others, where you show that despite your strong will you also give back, your commands will be carried out. The even stranger thing is, it will not feel like a command. In fact, it might feel like the natural thing to do.

4. Push your point, but move on.

Even more impressively, if I have been coerced to accept one of her whims, even if making her happy has been at the expense of my good night’s sleep, sending the report my boss is waiting for, or has taken every minute of my valuable talking time with my wife that evening, it is soon forgotten. By both of us. Life goes on, there are new challenges ahead. This happens even if there have been seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to peace, maybe I slept for only an hour combined throughout the whole night. She will simply smile at me and say something like: “Daddy read?” How does she do it?

5. See yourself as an equal

My daughter, who only just turned two, had an almost innate feeling of the peer-to-peer principle which is so immensely important in contemporary society, and is every day exploited by practitioners of leadership from below. She simply sees herself as an equal. She has no fear. She will likely approach royalty, CEOs, tax men, bosses, or teachers she will meet on her way in the same fashion she approaches her parents: as an opportunity to explore life, present her position, and share her world view with others. May that attitude become more prevalent in business, too. Having an effective leadership style is not about age, experience, or formal power. It is largely an attidude and a set of skills you hone through practice. I say, look at the two-year olds around you, and learn.

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