Samuel Bacharach on “The Agenda Mover”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of the New York City based Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG) and is also the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). Working with BLG he has developed programs specifically focusing on the behavioral skills leaders need to move agendas through the maze of organizational resistance and inertia. Believing that leadership is not about charisma, personality, or simply vision he has created leadership programs for multi-nationals, academic institutions, and non-profits empowering individuals at all levels with the political and managerial skills necessary for executing innovation and change. He is a columnist at and a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events.

His latest book, The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough, was published by BLG Books, in association with Cornell University Press (August 2016).

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Before discussing The Agenda Mover, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

I think to a large degree, like many people, it would be my parents. Not because of any personality trait, but what they represent. As immigrants to this country, their tenacity, their persistence, their sense that things could be accomplished by will and intention rather than simply by IQ and inspiration has become sort of my mantra. Indeed, the very notion that mobility can be achieved through effort and focused concentration is the backbone of everything I write about.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Early in my career I spent much of my time running experiments, crunching numbers and tried to see the world through mathematical modeling and statistics. About 20 years I had occasion to give a talk about my research to a major American corporation and I realized that while my findings were profound and my models elegant, I could not communicate the message in a way that was practical, usable, and clear. The reason being is that I was so ensconced in my academic models that I never bothered to look at the real world.

Since that day, I spend much of time engaging in “research as practice”—that is, speaking those people working in the organizations, speaking to the leaders who run the organizations, and meeting with leaders who are concerned with creating change and moving agendas, speaking to engineers who have great ideas but don’t know how to move them. That moment when I realized that academic models were useless unless they were grounded in the reality and vocabulary of real life was, for me, was a Rubicon that I crossed.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Bacharach: Formal education, and I include my Ph.D. as well, provided me the analytical tools, the frames, and the core mastery of logic that allowed me to decipher observations. It disciplined my mind. For example, I think I learned more from a unique combination of art history, statistics, and logic than I ever learned from one specific disciplinary course like sociology, psychology, or organizational behavior. When studying the

When studying art history I began to understand the idea of categorizing observations, of seeing links across time, and being able to make whole something that looks separate. When you can draw a link between Cezanne and Picasso, you have mastered the capacity to boil things down to its essence and see the world in terms of unities. From statistics, I began to understand the essence of error, the probability of us being wrong. And from logic, I began to appreciate the discipline of clear expression. This is something all leaders need to understand. A disciplined mind is the essence of leadership, and that doesn’t come because you understand economics or your business. It will come because you have the skills to draw links, understand the possibility of error, and to express yourself in a logical and clear way.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

In the final analysis, charisma, charm, and brilliance are neither necessary nor sufficient for success. That focused execution, the capacity to win people over, to have political competence, to move agendas through coalitions is the backbone of leadership. Success is never led by genius or charisma. It is led because one masters the skills of execution.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

There are a lot of movies, but let me suggest that three that come to mind and deal with something I’m concerned about. First, Tunes of Glory with Alec Guinness, with a post-WWII Scottish battalion that was led by a charismatic leader and is now led by a mundane by-the-book commander. It shows that leadership has to take into consideration the context. The style of leadership that was suitable in one context may not work in another. The second movie that comes to mind is The Caine Mutiny, the Humphrey Bogart classic that deals with core issues of inflexibility, cooperation, and loyalty. The central lesson here is that leaders owe their followers empathy, and to a certain degree, followers owe leaders empathy as well. Mutual empathy leads to success. Without it, disaster. Finally, the movie Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis. I prefer people read Team of Rivals, but this is the best depiction of political pragmatism in the name of a good cause that I’ve ever seen. The practical lesson is that sometimes leaders have to get in the weeds. Of course this is a mixed bag, but this movie is a great example of it.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

There is one generic theme running through these quotes. As a leader, you can’t do it alone, and you must try to avoid being the only person on the front stage. The best leaders facilitate other people’s competence. When leaders are recognized, they celebrate others because they understand that the key to leadership is appreciating that they can’t do it alone.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I’m not sure what he means, but I would express it differently. The essence of strategy is knowing that everyone can get burned out by swimming in the ocean so maybe you should just swim in a series of pools.

Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

That is not a negative but a positive. Essentially it means that over time radical ideas may become institutionalized in such a manner that they become part and parcel of our organizational culture and our daily life. As we know, when radical ideas become accepted and mundane, it is inevitable that in the dialectical spirit, they will be challenged, and the world therefore moves ahead in a strangely progressive manner, from radical to orthodoxy to cliché, from radical to orthodoxy to cliché, from radical to orthodoxy to cliché. And that’s how progress is made.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Strangely reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of the Scientific Revolution, when he talks about science moving in incremental doses rather than paradigm shifts. “That’s odd” opens up a portal of investigation which at first may not be overwhelming but may also be not weirdly intimidating, leading us down the path of discovery. “Eureka” while sometimes wonderful, more often than not is exaltation before the fact and guarantees almost nothing.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

In the corporate world today and sometimes in our political world, we continuously celebrate and recruit leaders with great vision. Can they really move an agenda? In my world and in the world where I grew up, just because you have a great idea, a Eureka moment, doesn’t mean that you’re capable of executing and delivering anything. Most leadership is about fighting headwinds, moving ideas one step at a time, having the political skills to win people over and pushing forward in spite of resistance while all the time keeping people in your corner.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Unfortunately, that is what goes on in a lot of organizations today. There are certain things we do very well, and we keep on doing them over and over again, because it is the easiest thing to do.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

A tough call, but if I could have a discussion with Lyndon Baines Johnson, I think I would have learned the most. He may not have been the greatest leader, and in many ways, he was flawed, but his evolution from the back hills of Texas to the leader of the Senate (what Robert Caro called “the Master of the Senate”) to a partner to MLK, to a tragic, fallen, and defeated man after Vietnam, totally intrigues me. My background is basically from Brooklyn, and somehow the combination of grit, practicality, audacity, and ideology that are found in Johnson also run deep in my personal background. I guess I believe the back hills of Texas have a lot in common with East New York, Brooklyn.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

As I argue in my latest book, The Agenda Mover, the key to overcoming resistance is to deeply understand the agendas of others. That may seem simple, but I mean it in a much more explicit way. You have to understand their mindset. How to they approach the situation? That requires a disciplined focus, a certain political empathy which many leaders ignore. Simply put, it just takes too much time.

As I also argue in that book, there are core skills that need to be mastered. You have to understand their arguments of resistance. What language will they use to challenge you? How will you respond? You have to understand their sense of power. What do they want to control? Most importantly, you have to understand if they are potential allies or potential resistors, whether they are traditionalists or revolutionaries. You can’t make the mistake of thinking you’re analyzing their personalities. Resistance may vary from issue to issue.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

I think the main challenge CEOs will face is how to lead organizations as they change in three ways: context, structure, and personnel. Future CEOs will not be able to rely so much on planning. They are going to have to master the art of muddling through. The world is changing as such a pace that strategic planning is a veneer under which we all muddle through. CEOs are going to have to learn the skills of picking up weak signals from their environment. They can no longer wait for the strong signals to come to the surface. If you do wait, you’re likely not to survive.

CEO’s will also have to come to grips with changing organizational structure. The old bureaucracies are falling apart. Organizations today are loosely couple systems in which projects replace departments and where global teams are in loose contact with each other, and where businesses, even within the same organization duplicate and compete. This is a long way from your parents’ General Motors. CEOs are going to have to understand the changing nature of personnel. Commitment to organizations is no longer what it was. Individuals, especially the best, are more committed to their career than ever, and retaining the best and brightest will become very difficult.

In the context of these changes, the nature of leadership is going to have to change. Leaders will have to roll up their sleeves and become real agenda movers. They must figure out how to get things done in their organization and not just give an annual visionary speech. My advice to CEOs is to get off your pedestal and start leading.

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Sam invites you to check out the resources at the Bacharach Leadership Group website. Here’s a link.

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