What Barack Obama Could Learn from Vivek Wadhwa

Ever since the presidential election of 2008, I’ve been getting progressively mad about something. I got enthralled with an administration that wanted to connect with people in the social era to create change. Perhaps unrealistically, I had this hope it would carry beyond the election cycle. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I thought that if we did nothing else than enable a set of new conversations, something – something incredibly important — would be changed forever. I imagined that government would not just be business as usual a way for people to be involved as thinkers and co-creators in their government.

I believed. Jennifer Pahlka, the leader of the Gov 2.0 initiative once characterized her stuff in a way that gave me language for this belief: “There is a certain generation who have grown up being able to mash up, to tinker with, every system they’ve ever encountered. So they are meeting their relationship with government in a new way, with a new assumption: We can fix it.”

But it turned out that my picture of what would happen next was a delusion. The social channel went quiet as soon as the election was over, and only got reconnected when it was time to run another campaign. It reminds me of all the brands who talk about social media as important but really view it as a form of cheaper marketing. All the recent emails from the White House asking me to care only manage to remind me that I once believed in something that wasn’t true. It is like the friend who only calls when they are looking for work, or the company that “connects” when they want you to buy something from them. It’s feckless.

I thought “we” were fighting for an idea that mattered, but it turns out “we” were fighting for more positional power. Mostly I’m sad, because I still want to believe.

I want to believe that change can happen, through the use of soft power. And every now and then I get a glimmer of proof that this is more than a dream. The SOPA strike, the Arab Spring, Ushahidi, Kickstarter, Wikipedia and countless other examples show the power of disparate diffuse strangers to marshall the kind of influence that amounts to real power – achieving things that once only centralized institutions could. I haven’t given up on the idea, because it’s time will come.

This has nothing to do with which party you or I believe in, or voted for, or whatever.  This has to do with what counts as leadership in the Social Era. To illustrate that point, I’m going to share a story of a friend, Vivek Wadhwa.

Vivek Wadhwa showed up in Silicon Valley in 2009 after running a few companies. He, like me, has been an operating leader but then stopped all that to write and pay attention to ideas that matter. And, at first, I really didn’t know what to make of him. He chose some topics that he had no first time knowledge of, so I certainly questioned if what he was doing at first was posturing or pandering.  But, almost 3 years later, here’s what I know:

  • He serves as a needed voice of change. He backs up everything with facts, and research, but always with a clear point of view.  The research he’s done on entrepreneurship challenge everything you “know”. His work on immigration got him an invitation to testify in front of Congress to shape the national debate. And during all this, his peer group largely doesn’t back him up.
  • Lays out credible arguments for real change. To quote Chris O’Brien’s piece in the Mercury News: “My impression when I came out here was that Silicon Valley was the world’s greatest meritocracy,” Wadhwa said during a recent talk at a TEDxWomen’s event. But after his research showed that women start only 3 percent of tech companies, he decided: “Silicon Valley, some of your VCs have a gender problem.”
  • Takes on things no one else does and, in doing so, creates change. Among Wadhwa’s biggest blog hits was a column last year criticizing the quality of Google’s search results as being in decline: “Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google.” That again touched off controversy, and when Google eventually responded by announcing changes to its search algorithm, Wadhwa was credited with being the catalyst.

See a thread? He didn’t stand in front of a group already shaped to say “follow me”. He focused on ideas that mattered, and got a following. And more importantly, things are changing.

Leading in the social era means that we use the power of US to make shit happen. Not for more money (that’s a secondary affect) or more positional power (also secondary), but to get things done.

This offers a template for each of us in our different work. Have an opinion, do your research, challenge convention, and start to do good when no one else is looking because at some point, some one will notice. Work cannot be about doing what we did yesterday, a little better or a little faster. That isn’t enough. Look around. We don’t need just a little tuning around the edges. Wall Street needs to be reformed. Governance needs to be reformed. Government needs to be reformed.  Businesses need to grok that social stuff isn’t about marketing but an entirely new way to have a relationship with one another. Innovation happens not because someone asks, “how can we beat this competitor” or “how to eke out earnings for the quarter”, but because that team imagines and then acts to do something really original (and then they figure out how to make money in the process) and then makes that a marketplace reality.

We see leaders … when we see who is fighting for ideas that matter. Not the person who is asking permission to fight for ideas, or the person who is chartered with that role, or the person who plays within the lines for what ideas are well-liked, does the self-serving vs. the selfless, or the person who compromises to fit into what others are ready to hear.

We see leaders when we see a fearless pursuit for ideals or change, and not in compromise, temporizing, and vacillation.

Lead the ideas that matter. You don’t need hard power to do this. The Social Era has made it easy for any of us to use soft power to change the world. It does and will reward that. Too bad Obama doesn’t get this. But you can.


6 Replies

  1. Yes, and no.. I completely agree with all you say, and mostly that it’s all about ideas that matter. And I think (that you also think) that Obama has excellent ideas that matter. He, though, is not running a company, or after an investors dream, he’s trying to change a country. A country that’s in a great divide.. And he cannot fire the ones not following along…

    You don’t need ideas that matter. The ideas are there. You need someone who can bridge between the poles and make things work.. Actually, you don’t need another leader. You need another system for elections and decision making in your country. Because your current ‘winner takes all’ system, results in just that..

    Thx for the post & the platform 🙂


    1. I had hoped that people would read past the political stuff and see the point and so thanks for doing just that. I think the current political system is set up and newbies come into it thinking “this is how it’s done”, and people start to work the system as it’s been defined. But any system changes when people within it change. I had hoped for someone who could frame the organizational / symbolic / economic issues in such a way that people could participate in their government. My husband says that it was unrealistic for this president to do so. But I think we always think something is unrealistic until it happens.

  2. I read two of your essays and learned a lot. However, though I hate to be pedantic (well… maybe, I don’t 🙂 , I found two spelling errors in two consecutive sentences – one too many for me to ignore. They detract from the inspiring core concepts, and it would serve the essays well to correct them. They are:

    The sentences in question are: “Businesses need to grock that social stuff isn’t about marketing but an entirely new way to have a relationship with one another. Innovation happens not because someone asks, “how can we beat this competitor” or “how to eek out earnings for the quarter”, but because that team imagines and then acts to do something really original (and then they figure out how to make money in the process) and then makes that a marketplace reality.”

    1. “grock” – correctly spelled “grok”

    2. “eek” – in this context, correctly spelled “eke”

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing.

    1. One thing you’ll learn about me is that I can create typos just about anywhere. It’s a gift. I try and catch it all but when I don’t, I get help from the Yes & Know community. So thanks for the help.

  3. I’m not very sure that what you are saying is possible specifically in context of US. It requires a bigger paradigm shift from people of country themselves. I think it will take atleast 8-20 years to come back to what you are visualizing.

    Only if Leadership was so easy. To be honest I see good managers, good catalysts, good orators, good foreign secretaries, good technologists, but almost no good leaders.

Leave a reply

Leave a Reply