Sunday, May 27, 2007

Arnie, the Unexpected Anti-Terminator

He was nicknamed “The Austrian Oak” in his body building days. Now, he’s “The Governator” who has big dreams and is getting big things done. As a political leader Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be living up to his oak tree legacy which symbolizes strength and endurance. Who could have imagined his apparent future success back in October 2003 when he defeated the then-Governor of California Gray Davis?

At first glance, his “rags to riches” immigrant story suggests that he’s no slouch, certainly a necessary prerequisite for any effective leader. But, many entrepreneurs who are typically fiercely independent fail miserably in the complex, multiple interest public sector arena. “Arnie”, as he is affectionately called, has stumbled here and there. However, despite the faux pas and some questionable past personal behaviour, he has managed to steer through the choppy waters and propel California into international prominence for tackling many tough issues.

His track record is enviable: leading edge legislation on intransient issues such as protecting the environment, emergency preparedness, quality pre-schooling for children, financial sustainability for the state and, more recently, proposed anti-gang initiatives directed towards intervention, suppression and prevention. Having a capable and strategically smart team around him has likely helped a great deal. There must also be something else at work though to move Arnie to act.

After reading an array of press on Governor Schwarzenegger, here’s one “take” on where he’s coming from. He’s a fast learner, open to new ideas and astutely tuned in to the interests and needs of the people of California. In that spirit, he champions innovations that make sense for the long-term.

At this distance from California, it’s not easy to evaluate whether and why he is an effective leader. Cynics might suspect he’s feathering his own ego needs for a lasting legacy. Expert critics might not like any or some aspects of the legislation he has enabled. Yet others might on balance applaud his leadership as courageous and practical. They might argue he is doing what leaders should in the presence of compelling data: taking the obstacles out of the way of the momentum of progress.

On balance, the unfolding story points to Governor Schwarzenegger showing leadership that makes a difference in a positive way. He is not only working the “Vision” side of leadership, he’s getting things done. It raises the question: what really makes Arnie tick?

His press coverage suggests a combination of factors:
1.He has a huge determination to prove himself. Mediocrity is not in his vocabulary;
2. He’s an inveterate goal-setter—big goals only
3. He abhors being a follower. He has been quoted as saying he “wanted to be part of the small percentage of people who were leaders, not the large mass of followers.” He is impressed with “leaders who use 100% of their potential.”
4. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He has had to overcome a lack of support especially in his early years where many people thought he would never succeed. It may be that helping others deal with large hurdles is built into his “DNA” as a matter of proving the naysayers wrong
5. He has had strong role models, such as Eunice and Sargent Shriver, who demonstrated that good public policy can make a big difference in building strong communities.

Arnie’s rise as a leader illustrates that leadership can come from anywhere and in the most unlikely of places. Given our increasing cultural diversity, his story is a reminder to us all to remain open to the talents of those around us.

One last word from “The Governator” to other leaders, as told to Linda Frum of the National Post for her May 26th article: concentrate only on the things you are able to do.