How to be a Once in a Generation Leader

Last Updated Sep 2, 2011 7:59 AM EDT

In all of the pundits' discussion of why President Obama is in trouble, and may lose to Rick Perry in a general election, the most single important factor has been overlooked. This missing ingredient is what turns an inspirational person, like Candidate Obama, into a true leader. It's vital that you have this quality, or you'll end up like Obama-having inspired people and then left them demoralized, frustrated, and angry.

The missing ingredient is building a bridge between aspirations and reality. The greatest leaders bridge these two realms, and in the process, change the world.Most people think leadership is all about the aspirational world--but that's only half the story. The other is "reality."

Connecting these two worlds is not actually that hard (more on that in a moment), but these worlds require such different skills and thinking that often people are good at inhabiting one but not the other. In fact, people usually think their preferred world is better. Most visionary leaders, masters of the aspirational realm, can't think about a profit-and-loss statement. Scientists, engineers, and accountants-people who live in the world of reality-think most visions, values, and mission statements are a complete waste of time.

Before I explain how you create this kind of bridge, it's important to grasp the difference between the aspirational world and the 'real' one. " In the aspirational world, the more you give things away, the more you have. The lingua franca of this world are ideas and emotions--hope, pride, esteem. Candidate Obama has masterfully dealt in the aspirational world, creating and growing the aspirations of hope and change.

The other world is "reality," and it is composed of finite resources that cannot be manufactured, like oil, gold, money and time. Give away some of your time, or money, and you have less time or money. Perhaps someday, technology will be able to make these things, but for now, there's only so much of them. When they're gone, they're gone.

So far, Obama gets an A in the aspirational realm, a C- for dealing with reality, and an F in bridging these two worlds. The result is that many Americans feel burned.

They believed, bought in, drank the Kool-Aid, but nothing happened. Reality didn't change, and Obama's focus on the deficit feels so miserly that it seems like the president must have multiple personalities: one a preacher, the other a below-average negotiator and manager.

What can he do? More importantly, what can you do, to build a bridge between aspirations and reality?

By looking at two people who have gotten this process right, we can see how to change the world. There are thousands of people we could use as models: Steve Jobs, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, even Alexander the Great. Let's focus on Gordon Moore, former head of Intel, and Steven Sample, retired president of the University of Southern California.

Step One: Grow People's Aspirations
Starting in about 1959, a number of thought leaders noticed that the number of components on a circuit board doubles every two years, while the price of the device remains the same. In 1965, Moore suggested that this trend would continue for decades, and "Moore's Law" has become a core belief among computer scientists around the world. Moore built a "tribe" of people around this imaginative idea, by cofounding Intel in 1968. But remember: Moore's Law isn't a law like gravity. It's made up on the basis of data that is now decades old. Moore took an obscure observation and used it to build a vision of the how the world would change. Projecting it forward was pure aspiration. The more he gave away the idea, the faster the idea spread, and the more it spread, the more people worked to make it happen

In 1991, the new president of the University of Southern California, Steven Sample, believed his institution was special. The problem was, most people didn't share his vision. With Obama-like passion, but a style more like the engineering professor that he was, Sample spread this view. As he met with students, faculty, parents, and alumni, he pointed out the uniqueness of USC-a major private university in Los Angeles, the gateway to Asia, with a "Trojan network" that rivaled the mafia in loyalty.

Notice that in both cases, if Moore and Sample had stopped here, they would have gotten people excited, but nothing would have changed. Also, both were masters of "leveraging assets"-finding resources that fed their vision of what's possible. Moore based his work on historical data. Sample built his upon "Trojan Pride," an element that had existed at USC for decades, but had fallen on hard times.

Step Two: Demand Results Consistent with Aspirations
At Intel, Moore was relentless in finding ways to make processors smaller, increasing the connections, and keeping the price the same. When dealing in the world of reality, Moore was obsessive about costs, research and development milestones, and new methods of manufacturing.

At USC, Sample connected the expanding aspirations to measureable accomplishments-donations, new buildings, hiring of star faculty, newspaper stories about USC's success, quality of applicants, jobs for graduates, rankings, and being named the College of the Year in 2000 by Time/Princeton Review. Like Moore, Sample was a relentless manager, containing costs, strategically developing relationships with wealthy alumni until the individuals and families gave large donations to USC. For Sample, every speech, gathering of alumni, and meeting with university leaders was a step in the process of bridging aspirations and reality.

Step Three: Use Results to Further Expand Aspirations
Every time Intel produced a new processor, it would create a bolder vision for the next five years. Every time USC brought in a gift or built a new building, the cult-like brand of USC became stronger. When reality mirrors the aspirations, the result is an exponential expansion of aspirations.

This cycle of aspirations-results-aspirations is why your iPad would look like magic to people just a couple of generations ago, and why an iPad in 2050 may be smarter than the human race combined.

A year after Sample retired as president, his successor brought in almost a $1 billion in donations, and just launched the most ambitious fundraising plan in history.
Getting back to Obama, he can follow these three steps by first rebooting his hope and change engine. It'll be harder this time, because people feel let down. But even with a small glimmer of optimism, he can then focus us all on real-world accomplishments that are measureable. The truth is that jobs, money, innovation, and wealth sit on the border between aspirations and reality, not unlike microchips and buildings at USC. Focus purely on reality, and they look unmovable. Look just at aspirations and people get excited and then crushed. The aspirations-reality-aspirations cycle described in this blog post can produce jobs, income, and wealth on a level our country has never seen.

Let's hope someone whispers this process in his ear, and teaches him that great leadership requires building a bridge between aspirations and reality. We really can't wait until 2012 for someone else to try this again.

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Photo courtesy Davey83, CC 2.0.
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    View all articles by Dave Logan on CBS MoneyWatch »
    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.

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