Comment: What Obama can learn from the Washington Redskins

Changing presidents is like changing coaches in many ways, Mark Abramson writes.

Washington is a town that loves politics and sports. For sports fans and political observers in the nation’s capital, 2008 presented not one but two transitions. In addition to the current transition of power from President George W. Bush to President-elect Barack Obama, Washingtonians also witnessed a transition of power last February when Jim Zorn was selected to replace Joe Gibbs as head coach of the Redskins.

During the selection of Obama’s Cabinet, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the two transitions. In both cases, some leading candidates were not selected. In the case of the Redskins, front-runner Gregg Williams — former assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Gibbs — found himself a disappointed job seeker. In the case of Obama, several front-runners for secretary of state were disappointed at the outcome of the job search for that position.

Lesson No. 1 in politics and sports: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. You don’t have the job until the offer has officially been made and you have accepted.

The second similarity between the two transitions is the importance of putting together an entire management team. Sports aficionados and keen political observers know that the head coach (Zorn) or Cabinet secretary (such as Tim Geithner at the Treasury Department or Hillary Clinton at the State Department) represents only the tip of the iceberg of the organization. Regardless of how smart and effective a head coach or Cabinet secretary might be, he or she alone cannot achieve the outcomes desired by the boss (Dan Snyder or Obama). The job of the head coach and Cabinet secretary is to set a vision for the organization and serve as its public spokesperson. A management team is needed to execute the vision and manage inside the organization.

Lesson No. 2 in politics and sports: Both the head coach and Cabinet secretary need an effective, highly qualified management team behind them to succeed.

Although it's been easy to find lists of potential Cabinet secretaries in the daily papers and on the Internet, names of candidates for the sub-Cabinet (deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries and agency heads) are much harder to find. However, those jobs are ultimately crucial to the success of the organization. In putting together their teams, the boss (Snyder or Obama) must find individuals who can work effectively as a team. In the case of the Redskins, Snyder selected a defensive coordinator (Greg Blache) and an offensive coordinator (Sherman Smith) who could work well with Zorn and form a cohesive team. In the last year of Gibbs’ tenure, staff cohesion and effective working relationships became problems, and Snyder needed to get that right under new coach Zorn.

In the case of Obama, he and his Cabinet secretaries need to select deputy secretaries and the other members of the departments’ senior management teams who can work together with the Cabinet secretary to jointly accomplish the president’s agenda. Previous administrations often have had political factions working on their own agendas in individual Cabinet departments. There is no room for political factions within a Cabinet department or football team.

Lesson No. 3 in politics and sports: The management team must work together as a team, without infighting or separate agendas.

Watching the implementation of those three lessons will give Redskins fans and political junkies much to talk about in the coming months.

Abramson (mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com) is president of Leadership Inc. He has served as executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and president of the Council for Excellence in Government.

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