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Leadership Lessons from Inauguration Day 2021

Like many Americans, I watched the socially distanced Inauguration 2021 festivities with interest.

But unlike many Americans, I observed this day unfold through my professional lens, watching for lessons in leadership. Regardless of whether your candidate is now in office, executives in any kind of organization can benefit from these key takeaways regarding leadership in the nation’s current political and cultural climate.

Leaders Set Culture and Context

If we think about Inauguration as Day 1 of our chief executive’s job, it was also his first “All Hands” meeting. Companies and organizations may give them different names, but an all-employee gathering of some kind is standard for bringing everyone together to hear the same thing, at the same time. We can think of the U.S. currently as the most diverse and divided organization, and a new CEO just stepped into the role.

At this first address to the U.S. population, President Biden showed us his vision of America. Coming together as a nation, he highlighted both our differences and shared traits. He also shared what his administration will do and what he expects us to do. Biden spoke the truth about the opportunities and the challenges we face, and the work required to overcome them. His selection of a graduate from a historically black university (Howard University) and the first African American and South Asian as Vice President, a woman who is preeminently qualified and experienced, sends a clear message. Talent can be found everywhere, and it should be leveraged if we are to continue to rise to the challenges we face. When you look at the artists, poems and songs selected to commemorate this moment, it’s clear that they signified diversity, unity and the constructive tension that exists amongst all of those elements.

When swearing in staff members (remotely), President Biden made it clear that he expects honesty, decency and innovation in getting work done. That is the explicit articulation of culture, an essential aspect of effective leadership. He noted that he and all the members of the administration work for the people and emphasized that everyone deserves to be treated with respect, providing clear context for their work. The tone is being set for how America should behave and how Americans must behave with one another.

Leaders Say WE More than ME

Did you notice that the focus of the selected speakers, performers and President Biden was on us, the American people, rather than on him? With the theme “America United,” the bipartisan inauguration committee ensured no Democrat/Republican divisiveness from the dais. No one person or ideology was celebrated. 

Any good leader must start with themselves and examine their own beliefs, behaviors and impact on those around them. They actively solicit differing points of view and get data from multiple sources about their behavior and its impact on the organization. They are constantly evaluating their performance and what individuals and their teams need to be successful.

There was a lot of “you” and “we” far more than “I” or “me” in President Biden’s inaugural remarks.

Leaders Provide Vision

President Biden laid out his hopes and vision for the United States clearly and plainly, giving the American people a charge to come together against the crises our country currently faces. Great leaders give rise to a purpose that is bigger than one person or the strength of their personality. They provide a north star that allows an organization to aspire to goals bigger than profit for profit’s sake. Think of some of the great organizational brands and their clarity of purpose, which guides their teams:

  • Disney – We create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere.
  • Kimberly Clark – Lead the World in Essentials for a Better Life
  • Hulu – To empower everyone to discover, share, and celebrate the stories that connect us. 

The people associated with those organizations understand what they collectively strive to achieve. President Biden’s remarks told us clearly that we are Team America. Our purpose is to move out of this difficult time successfully, helping and challenging each other along the way.

Leaders Communicate Candidly

Candid communication is essential to strong leadership. President Biden asked Americans to give him a chance, to understand his direction and guiding purpose. Then he noted that if you don’t agree with him, that’s democracy.

Effective leaders want relationships with their teams to be productive. Leaders have to be transparent, seek feedback and give feedback, and want to hear both when you agree and disagree with their decisions. If we are looking for change and forward motion, we have to be willing as leaders to do the work first with ourselves.  

President Biden noted to his newly installed team that he’ll make mistakes. He committed to being transparent about those mistakes and asked for support in finding the right path forward. This is a formula for collaborative, candid leadership.

Leaders Value Information and Experience

Great leaders take a hard look at difficult issues. They use facts to make decisions, rather than feelings, perceptions or what is politically expedient. Doing so makes an organization better, stronger and more resilient to an ever-changing business environment. Consistently identifying opportunities and potential disruptions help forward-thinking leaders proactively adjust business strategy.

We learned immediately what this administration’s top priorities are based on the state of our country today. We also heard our chief executive highlight the team surrounding him. It’s clear that people with diverse backgrounds and deep experience are being called to serve the country at this challenging time, and their insights will be respected and valued.

Strong leaders allow capable team members to do their jobs without micro-managing them. They set the agenda, define success and then get out of their way, while remaining accessible and informed.  

Setting the tone, establishing ground rules, assembling a capable team and acting as part of it, identifying a vision and offering transparency… our new leader showed many positive practices in just one day.  As we move into 2021, all leaders should be mindful of the lessons they’re teaching others who will partner with them, and someday succeed them.

Could your management style be more effective? Let’s talk about your growth opportunities as a leader.