The Agenda Mover: A book review by Bob Morris

agenda-moverThe Agenda Mover: When Good Ideas Are Not Enough
Samuel B. Bacharach
Cornell University Press (August 2016)

“Vision without execution is hallucination.” Thomas Edison

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of the fact that, for decades, those enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course shout out this mantra: “I know people in the ranks who are going to stay in the ranks. Why? I’ll tell you why. Simply because they haven’t the ability to get things done!” There has never been a shortage of talkers. There is always a shortage of doers.

To what does this book’s title refer? Samuel Bacharach explains: “The leadership challenge of moving an agenda can present itself at any level of an organization, from the president’s office to the mail room. If you have a project that needs to happen, if you’re backing an innovation that is meeting resistance, if you want to push change in your organization, then you are called upon to lead. And to lead, you have to [be or have] an agenda mover, being mindfully aware of the intentions of others and mastering the pragmatic skills necessary to execute.”

In football, “moving the chains” is a term used when a team with the ball is gaining ground to score with a series of first downs. That can be done with a long pass completion, of course, but usually with a series of plays that gain first downs only a few yards at a time. That’s the agenda and the quarterback is usually the agenda mover. Businesses also need people who are results-driven, who have a knack for making steady (seldom dramatic) progress toward achieving a goal. It could be meeting a tight deadline. It could mean avoiding or responding to a major crisis. It could mean solving a serious problem or answering an especially important question. You cannot move the chains during a football game without teamwork and that is usually true in business, also. Agenda movers not only gets others involved; they get them engaged. Achieving high-impact results is the essence of what Bacharach characterizes as “pragmatic leadership.”

What about charisma? ”The nineteenth century sociologist Max Weber was the first to emphasize the importance of charisma as a key leadership attribute. For Weber, charisma is a deeply rooted personality trait that enables certain individuals to command others by the sheer power of their presence. Charisma suggests a mystical bond between leader and followers, with the latter defining their aspirations and in some cases their values by those of the former. As such, charisma, for Weber is a crucial ingredient in the mix of qualities that make for successful, productive leaders.”

Quite true but not all great leaders are charismatic nor do all charismatic leaders possess admirable qualities of character, such as decency and compassion. “Agenda movers know that in the final analysis, charisma on its own doesn’t get a lot done. Leadership comes down to execution.” More specifically, to collaborative execution. This is probably what Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when observing, “Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher but a molder of consensus.” His most famous speech is “I Have a Dream,” not “I Have a Plan.”

I commend Samuel Bacharach on the abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel he provides in support of the core message in The Agenda Mover: “Try to be mindful of where you want to go and whose support you will need to help get you there. There is an implicit message throughout this book — an agenda mover knows that he or she cannot do it alone.”

However different the healthiest organizations may be in most respects, all of them have pragmatic leadership at every level and in every area of the given enterprise. Also, their people think and communicate with first-person plural pronouns. “I” may have a dream but only “We” can overcome the barriers to making that dream come true.

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