August 18, 2009
The Obama Presidency is continually, easily disrupted by featherweight PR flacks, junior political hacks, run-of-the-mill lobbyist attacks, cliques that run with the pack, and debates that veer off-track. Why doesn’t anybody have Obama’s back?
President Obama is an ineffective leader, one unable to transform power into policy, resources into action. Here’s why — and how not to make the same mistakes whenever and wherever you’re called on to lead.
Horse-trade with hardliners. Effective leaders only negotiate with those who are willing to negotiate. Granting concessions to those who won’t reciprocate is a surefire recipe for failure. Instead of negotiating with hardliners, leaders sideline and marginalize them.
Impatience. Great leaders are patient — and they never cave quickly. Many never cave, period. It took all of six months for Obama to abandon the health care reform Democrats have fought decades for. That kind of impatience is a surefire recipe for leadership failure: adversaries know they can get the better of you with little investment.
Trade courage for detachment. Mr Miyagi taught Daniel-san that fighting is for wimps — but he also taught Daniel-san that when bullies bring the fight to you, fight back as publicly and honorably as possible. Sometimes, bullies need to be taught a lesson. When you’re trying to lead — but others shout you down — the time for softball is over. In situations of coercion, your power as a leader is never more necessary.
Have no secret weapon. Mr Miyagi knew that every leader needs a secret weapon; that’s why he taught Daniel the Crane Kick. Speak softly, but carry a big stick — you know the score. Obama’s problem isn’t, in fact, that he doesn’t have one — he does: it’s his silent majority. Rather, Obama’s problem, curiously, is that he’s the super-Daniel. He refuses to use his secret weapon even when exigency demands it.
Paralysis by committee. One of Obama’s greatest failures as a leader is the homogeneity in perspectives and attitudes of those closest to him. His economic advisors — Larry Summers and Tim Geithner — share a similarly orthodox economic mindset. Numerous eminent economists have complained vociferously about being frozen out — they can’t gain access to Obama. Sound familiar? It should: organizational closure is the same mistake Dubya made — he surrounded himself with neocons, and when their ideas failed, so did his presidency, and the nation.
Bark without biting. Rahm Emanuel is the most feared guy on K Street since Karl Rove. Or is he? How tough can Rahm be if health care reform, financial reform, and military reform are so easily squelched, if junior Senators openly rebel against the President, and if his entire party is taken to the mat by…a has-been VP candidate who was a national lampoon just a few short months ago? A leader who can’t enforce his power has no power at all.
Let the burning platform sputter. Where is the Obama administration’s burning platform — not merely for health care, but for the multitude of challenges facing America? Where is the burning platform for education, finance, transportation, manufacturing, energy — to name just a few 21st century challenges? Great leaders ignite burning platforms — and never let them sputter.
Never name your adversaries. When anonymous forces derail you, it’s game over. Every great leader humanizes his opponents, because every opponent is a human with a human agenda. Obama’s now associated with “death panels” courtesy of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck — but Obama hasn’t traced the meretricious attack back to its source, which would effectively neutralize it.
Strike Faustian bargains. Every great leader has to cut a deal with the devil, right? Wrong. Just ask Gandhi, Ataturk, MLK, or the Founding Fathers. All forged coalitions, and crafted compromises — but none made deals that poisoned the very institutions they fought so hard to craft. Yet, Obama has consistently dealt with those interested in stopping reform: lobbyists, megacorporations, and fringe groups. Imagine, for a second, if the Founding Fathers had cut deals with King George, so their nascent United States could “gain legitimacy.” Would we still remember them as leaders?
Sell out, instead of buying in. Lately, I get the sense that Obama has confused leadership with salesmanship. Leaders aren’t salesmen because leaders aren’t sellers: they’re buyers. They buy into shared interests instead of selling out to conflicting interests. In a way, that was the point of Arthur Miller’s play: Willy Loman ended up broke, alone, and defeated because he couldn’t lead anyone, anywhere, to anything — because he was too busy selling. Instead of buying in, Willy was selling out. Sound familiar? It should: striking deals that are riddled with pervasive conflicts of interest has become a hallmark of the Obama Presidency.
I’m disappointed in President Obama for many reasons. But the biggest is also the simplest: he’s failed to lead at the time at exactly the moment leadership was needed most.
Fire away in the comments with questions, criticisms, thoughts – or, if you feel I’ve missed some, add your own leadership mistakes that you think Obama’s made