Rush Avoidance

Posted 03.09.2009

Some regular readers of this blog have asked me if I’ll ever use an example of ineffective leadership regarding President Obama.  Well, for those of you who have been waiting, today is your day. (Among the positive examples I’ve cited, however, let’s not overlook my post taking the administration to task for over-delegating the stimulus bill.) 

Rushlimbaugh Is anyone other than me sick of hearing about Rush Limbaugh?  Are you asking yourself why, in the midst of once in a lifetime economic turmoil, he’s getting so much attention?  As the New York Times  reports this morning in a profile of presidential advisor, David Axelrod, it’s because the White House decided we should be talking about Rush.  Why in the world would they decide that?

As the Times piece explains, Axelrod engineered the “Rush is the leader of the Republican party” gambit because, as he told his colleagues, “ it was not a moment to sit quietly after Mr. Limbaugh said he hoped that Mr. Obama would ‘fail.’  With a deft assist from new GOP chairman Michael Steele who, in a “d’oh” moment that would make Homer Simpson proud, publicly took on Rush and then promptly sought his forgiveness, the White House (but not the President himself), kept the Rush story alive all last week.

In doing so, they distracted the media and began to weaken their case for a serious bi-partisan approach on Capitol Hill.  Again, why would they do this?

One answer would be politics as usual and that might be right.  A deeper analysis might come from a mentor of mine, Ron Heifetz, a professor of leadership studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  While I haven’t talked with him about the Rush dust-up, my guess is that Ron would say it’s a classic example of work avoidance. It’s a trap that leaders and the groups that follow them get into when the stakes and the stress are high.  Here’s a definition of it from Ron’s 1994 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers :

… people fail to adapt because of the distress provoked by the problem and the change it demands.  They resist the pain, anxiety, or conflict that accompanies a sustained interaction with the situation.  Holding onto past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions or finding a distracting issue may restore stability and feel less stressful than facing and taking responsibility for a complex challenge.  These patterns of disequilibrium are called work avoidance mechanisms…”

Sound familiar?  It does to me and it’s easy to see why it happens.  It’s easier to avoid the work than it is to face it head on.  Much of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  We think we’re doing the work of leadership, but we’re really just engaged in the small stuff that distracts us from the bigger stuff.

Here’s a question to start your leadership week.  What work am I avoiding and how am I avoiding it?