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Why Influencing Leaders Requires a Willingness to Hug a Porcupine

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Let’s be clear about this: to successfully influence leaders, that is, to have your views, your suggestions, your criticisms of their actions and so on, be taken seriously by them, you are not allowed to cheat. Cheat and leaders will ignore you. Worse, they will treat you with contempt. Above all, you will deserve their contempt.

The subject is important because a fundamental part of producing change is the ability to influence leaders…the leaders of the organizations you need help from, and the leaders of government at different levels without whose support very little can get done. I know this suggestion flies in the face of the current romance of the streets, of the current idealization of grass roots mobilization using cool new tools that magically launch revolutions, and produce wondrously effective pro-poor social and political change.

Now, I am a great believer in active citizens but I also know that real change is delivered by effective coalitions, and people in leadership positions are at the very heart of effective coalitions. It is the classic Inside-Outside strategy: leaders in government and leaders in civil society collaborate (sometimes quietly because of the exigencies of power play) to produce change.

In another life, when I was a newspaper pundit and editorial opinion writer, a number of leaders I interacted with taught me a simple truth. They were trying to describe to me which newspaper editorials or writers they took seriously and why. They laid out the tests they applied as follows:
 

  • Are you informed? Do you know what you are talking about?
  • Are you aware of the complexity of the decision-making context that the leaders in the arena are facing?
  • Do you factor that complexity into what you are proposing, or are you ignoring the complexity in order to fire off cheap shots, or urge upon them asinine courses of action?

They said to me that these tests are the reason leaders take very few activists, pundits and editorial opinions seriously.  But, you know, I firmly believe that similar tests are applied by leaders in different spheres of life…including where you work. Leaders everywhere, I am convinced, take very few people seriously.

The key lesson that I was taught is this: if you are informed, if you take on the complexity of the decision making context leaders are facing and still come to a different, perfectly feasible course of action, you will earn the respect and admiration of the leaders you are trying to influence, even if they don’t say so to you...or change course.

The reason for all this is simple. Leaders wrestle with complexity all the time. They have to embrace porcupines daily…and porcupines have those nasty erectile spines mingled with their body hair. Yet, these sorely pressed leaders often find that most of the people seeking to influence them, or those who simply blast them, are not interested in embracing porcupines.  They cheat. They simplify complex problems and then say: ‘It is simply really, Madame Prime Minister. Why don’t you do this or that?’
 
And why do people cheat? Because embracing complexity is hard; thinking is hard; and trade-offs are tough customers. It is a lot easier to cheat.

But leaders cannot cheat. They cannot duck complexity. They cannot avoid difficult trade-offs, competing principles, quarrelling allies, vicious enemies and so on.
 
I want to end with an example from the world of politics. In October 2012, the best-selling author, Michael Lewis, published a remarkable essay in Vanity Fair, the resultant of spending six months quietly shadowing President Barack Obama of the United States. The piece is titled ‘Obama’s Way’ and it contains the following glimpses into the realities of political leaders. Lewis quotes Obama saying:
 
  1. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made that decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
  2. “You’ll see that I wear only gray or blue suits. I am trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I am eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

Now, just think about what it would take to impress and influence someone only a small part of whose reality we have just espied.
 
Photo Credit: Mary Harrsch
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Comments

Submitted by richard holloway on

Sina Odugbemi's world is very one-sided. Does he really believe leaders cannot cheat? Yes, they have to make difficult decisions but. Surely the real world is more like tht described in Paul Collier's book "Wars, Guns, and Votes" - "Patronage, financed by embezzlement, has been the standard means of retaining power" Page 213 Vintage edition. In many cases understanding the complexity of making decisions, is secondary to understanding the ethics of the context in which decision making is posited.Yes, it is important for those seeking change to understand the complexity of the choices that leaders have to make, but it is also important to understand the moral context within which leaders operate, and be very clear that those seeking change do not operate like that, but operate according to principles of honesty and accountability. Watch out that real politik does not mean abandoning principles.

Nobody is being asked to abandon principles; nor should anyone assume that leaders are uniformly unprincipled/corrupt everywhere. The blog post is clear in its specific message: what works if the intention is to influence leaders.

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