The List

A list is what you make of it. In writing a list, reading a list, following-up on a list, its value depends on something beyond the list itself.

I thought of this when I read this morning about one aspect of the meeting between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin. According to accounts, President Biden handed to Putin a list of sixteen areas of American life that should not be the victims of cyber attacks. A list.

My first thought was of another list sent to another bad-actor national leader. On April 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched a note to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. On that occasion, Roosevelt listed thirty-one nations that he asked the Nazi leader to pledge not to invade. Shown above is Hitler’s response to Roosevelt’s list.

I’m not predicting an equivalency of outcomes between then and now. I’m pointing out a technique common to both leadership moments. I’m holding up the offering of a list as a leadership action made by Roosevelt in 1939 and Biden in 2021. In both cases, POTUS framed something on a list and declared it off-limits or at least preferred off-limits.

If a leadership client of mine were to ask me about the technique, I’d toss out a couple of thoughts.

First, the leader must understand what the list embodies. Its constituent parts, its itemizations, amount to a whole meaning. Know what it is. Not knowing will create even more problems.

Second, the leader should already have in mind some way to account for his or her counterpart’s violation of the list. Know how to know. I can almost guarantee that if the list has any purchase in the future, the next challenge will be when you declare the list violated, the other leader will insist otherwise, that it’s a misunderstanding and the original list remains intact and untouched.

Third, the leader should also have at least some idea as to punishment of a verified violation. The form, the extent, the timing, each of these features of a reactive punishment can’t be created from nothing. They will come from something that already exists in a toolkit, an arsenal, a quiver of arrows.

A list is a kind of box. Not a lot of room to change. Not a lot of ability to flex or adapt. A list is more management than leadership, I should think, more of a thing ticked off one-by-one, checked or crossed-out or struck through.

So it’s out there. The list is alive. Now we find out what the life of the list is made of. Next time you want to use a list as a leader, I hope you remember these brief thoughts on a POTUS separated by eighty-two years.

Thanks for reading.

All the best,