This week in the United States, we’re barraged with stories commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. What may be obscured in this coverage is the immediate aftermath, and what it meant for the stability of the United States government – and possibly the world at large.
International tensions were high when the shots were fired in Dallas. At the time, no one knew if the shooting was linked to the Soviets, Kennedy’s attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro, or something even more nefarious (many still claim they don’t know!). Any perceived American weakness – confusion, panic, indecisiveness – could have exposed the country and left it vulnerable to Cold War nemeses.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson recognized this, perhaps quicker than anyone, and moved with remarkable speed to visibly and efficiently effect the transfer of power. There is a process built into the US Constitution to respond to the incapacitation of the Chief Executive, and Johnson was going to make the world see that the process worked.
Following a process is every bit as important as making sure one exists. Often, when faced with challenges, big or small, organizations say, “We have a process for handling that.” Whether or not processes are indeed written, what matters is that they are followed. (Binney’s First Law – coined a dozen years before this author read The New Rational Manager – states: If you say you have a process, but you don’t follow the process, you don’t have a process).
Having well-documented business processes and clear rules of engagement, do not minimize the individual contributions and thought leadership of employees and managers; it liberates them. Not worrying about what rules to follow (or create); or what information, involvement, or resources will be needed; how to manage milestones or how to document and communicate the results… all free up participants to think clearly on what’s important.
If the United States had to spend late November 1963 figuring out how to replace the president, Johnson would not have been able to immediately set to work continuing Kennedy’s legacy; for starters, key revenue bills would have stalled during any “leadership crisis,” and there would have been no civil rights act on the horizon – if at all.
One other thing Johnson did right that Friday afternoon was to assemble President Kennedy’s widow and other notables, on board Air Force One’s return to DC, for a swearing-in ceremony. Legally, LBJ became president as soon as Secret Service agents pounced on the back of Kennedy’s limo – no ceremony was constitutionally necessary. As painful as this may have been, it showed the world a transition of power that was peaceful and complete.
By making this visible, the new president sent an unmistakable message to American citizens, allies, and antagonists; that the process worked.
A crucial question for business leaders today is not, how good are your processes? but, how visibly are you demonstrating them?