On Breaking Fingers and Pulling Toenails

One of the more intriguing assessments of a politican that I’ve read in some time was Lexington’s analysis of Nancy Pelosi in the March 20th edition of the Economist.  The article, though written before the passing of the health care bill, does an astute analysis of Mrs. Pelosi’s strengths and weaknesses, and suggests that she may the most powerful woman in American history.  Reading the analysis, which describes both her strengths and weaknesses in great detail, I could not help but remember an exceedingly high-placed executive in one of America’s Fortune 100 companies.  But first, the analysis of Mrs. Pelosi.Though her family is not quite Democratic royalty, like the Kennedy’s or the Clinton’s, they certainly belong to the Democratic aristocracy.  Her father was both congressman and mayor of Baltimore and her brother was also mayor of Baltimore.  Despite all that political background, she is an uninspiring speaker, unpopular throughout most of the country (except, of course, in San Francisco), without great substantive skills. Lexington suggests less ability than Sarah Palin, but having listened to extended conversations of both, I view that as nonsense.  Palin can’t put a sentence together.  The Economist also blunders in its comparison of Pelosi to Newt Gingrich, who they suggest, had far more interesting thoughts as Speaker.  In spite of his PhD in history, Gingrich drew conclusions from American intellectual history that were less than inspiring, even ordinary.  Gingrich, like Pelosi, showed himself able to access the ideas of others, an ability made necessary by the time-consuming tasks of the Speaker.  Still, the ability to use the team’s smarts is an admirable quality of both.Pelosi has been learning her job since she was a child, answering the phone for her father, telling people who to call to get on welfare or how to get into the city hospital, presumably without funds or insurance.  And as the House vote showed, she knows how to keep the fractious Democrats in line, and is evidently far more disciplined that the former Democrat speaker, Dick Gephardt.  But where Pelosi really excels is in her ability to build coalitions, to horse-trade, to negotiate, and to pull of the maneuvers that could bring in both Dennis Kucinich who wanted publicly sponsored insurance, and Bart Stupak, the strong Democratic anti-abortionist.  Throughout the month before and during the passing of the bill, I found myself both fascinated by her political action and almost unbelievably frustrated by the public’s total lack of knowledge about the normal horse-trading that takes place in the passing of any major bill.  The notion of political action, the kind of compromising and trading, and ugly parliamentary maneuvering that have taken place in our nation for hundreds of years and that are the process by which we have become a great democracy, seems almost totally outside the purvey of much of the public.  Well, whatever . . . Pelosi has demonstrated the ability to get reelected on a regular basis, and to manage the U. S. House of Congress, an almost impossible feat in a world of instant communication.  That difficulty, with what some political illiterates see as dishonest manuvering, has a name:  the art of the possible.Successful political horse-traders know how to assess every member of their party, to call in favors, and to break fingers and pull toenails.  You can be damned certain that her rolodex is among the largest and most detailed in the political world, perhaps in the entire world.  She knows how to get things done, and is totally fearless in the use of her power.  Her expertise, as she has since demonstrated is impeccable, much to the chagrin of her opponents.If you’ve paid attention to Pelosi and the House, you understand that her achievements and power are built almost solely by her own electioneering and by her ability to manage organizational politics.  On occasion the same is true with very senior executives.  Many businesspeople think that to become an exec you have to have an in-depth knowledge of one or two disciplines, know how to manage your people and your boss, work successfully in cross-disciplinary settings, be able to formulate and execute both tactically and strategically, and know your customers exceptionally well.  That is certainly not incorrect, but there are other ways to achieve.More than ten years ago I consulted to one of the most highly placed women in American business, a firm known the world over.  She was a mediocre manager, non-strategic, not a good read of her people, lacked an MBA and hadn’t quite finished her bachelor’s, yet she was the executive over a division responsible for more than $6B income per year.  From all that I knew, her power made little sense.  After a few months, I tracked down a director who knew her very well, and was willing to share some confidences with me.  With a laugh he explained.  Whenever she needed help, which was often, she knew to either access the help internally, or buy it externally.  But the more prominent expertise was her sales ability.  Most of her division’s income was business to business, not consumer.  And that exec, I learned, had the ability to pull together a fifty to two-hundred fifty million dollar deal with highly placed strategic customers.  When a corporation has a sales person like that, it makes everything available, including a a senior executive role and the use of the corporate jet for anyplace in the world. Both Pelosi and that exec had a very narrow, but very deep set of people skills.In this economy, the best paid and most secure businesspeople will have a comparable set of people skills. The article from the Economist is found here:  Nancy Pelosi’s Challenge.  
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