Friday, April 30, 2010

Obama Shows How Not to Lead

If you want to develop your leadership skills, you will need to choose the right leader to emulate.

We humans imitate our betters. It's in our DNA. We want to improve ourselves, sometimes by growing up, sometimes by becoming better people.

Even more than we want to find ourselves, we want to better ourselves.

We imitate our parents and older siblings. When we go on to school we emulate our teachers. In the business world we follow the examples set by our managers, supervisors, and CEOs.

And we imitate these people, regardless of whether we have chosen them as our role models. We do not select our parents and siblings. In most cases we do not select our schoolteachers. Eventually, we will choose the professors whose courses we will take in college, and we certainly have a say in deciding which job offers to accept or reject.

It's not just that a good manager makes our job easier, more productive, and more satisfying, he or she is also going to be your primary leadership role model.

I will mention in passing that you should never choose a fictional character, whether from television, the movies, or a novel, as your role model. Fictional characters are invariably bad role models, even when they seem to be good leaders.

In our society the highest level of public leadership is exercised by the President of the United States. Like it or not, he is our national role model. For better or worse, we are drawn to follow his example. After all, achieving the American presidency constitutes a great success.

And we all have a say in who becomes president. We make a choice. Our candidate may not always win, and we may not agree with his policies, but we want to be able to emulate the way he conducts himself in office. We want the president to set an example that we can happily follow.

If you follow the example of a good leader you will be well on the road to developing your own leadership skills. If you are led by someone who does not know what he is doing, you are going to develop a series of bad habits... whether you like it or not.

You may know that you should not emulate this or that leader, but it takes effort, it feels strange, and at times it feels like you are fighting off demons, to avoid imitating his example.

A good president knows that his public behavior will be setting standards for the behavior of others throughout the body politic. And he knows that if he wants to rule a society where social harmony is the order of the day, he needs to maintain the most strict decorum and propriety. If he wants people to respect each other he should begin by showing respect to those who disagree with him.

George Washington understood this perfectly. So, for that matter, does the Queen of England. Apparently, Barack Obama did not get the message.

Leadership is about building consensus by persuading those who disagree with you to accept your decisions. If a leader cannot build consensus, he should move on to a different issue.

As we have all noticed by now, Obama does not know how to build consensus. His presidency has been about dividing the nation against itself. Shouldn't he know that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," whether in Abraham Lincoln's version or as it was first written in Matthew 12:25?

If we put politics to the side, this is all easy to understand. Imagine that you are leading a marketing group. You, or someone else in the group, proposes a new marketing plan. Part of the group loves it; another part hates it.

You're the leader. It's up to you to decide. Or at least it is if that is how you see leadership. If you are sufficiently insecure you will feel that you are being tested and that you need to show who is in charge. You have to assert yourself so you will have a swagger that impresses Frank Rich. Link here.

(While we're here, let's be clear that Frank Rich is a bad monitor of leadership qualities, not so much because his opinions tend to be unimaginatively liberal, but because his real skill lies in drama criticism. Rich sees leadership through the perspective of what he knows best, the theater.)

You're the leader and you decide to implement the marketing plan. Too much time has been spent debating the issue; something has to be done; you are the leader; your credibility is on the line; you are going to do it. So, you do.

What are the chances that this plan will be successfully implemented? Slim to none. Given the divisions on your team its members are not going to come together to tackle their new challenge. Those who disagree have a stake in failure. Even if they are not aware of it, they are not going to be doing their level best to make the new strategy a success.

Now, of course, our dear leader has a problem. He knows he is the leader. He knows that leaders decide. He decided. Thus, he make the tough decision. If the plan is not working out as he expected, then clearly he is not to blame. If he is not to blame, then someone else is.

The leader who does not know how to lead then takes the next step. He starts setting up dissident team members to take the fall. He calls them out by name, accuses them of being too lazy, of wanting his job, of disrespecting him, of not making a good faith effort.

He is creating a narrative and beginning the process of scapegoating. When his plan fails, he will be ready to deflect attention from himself.

Dare I say that no serious business executive would ever undertake such a series of actions. A politician who has never had any experience in business, a Barack Obama, would, because, apparently, he does not know any better.

As I was discussing yesterday, good leadership involves the exercise of what John Baldoni called "earned authority." Contrasted with a leader who has earned his authority through a record of consistent achievement, Obama represents a prime example of unearned authority. He is charismatic; he incites passions; he divides people; he is not very effective.

The fact that he gained office legitimately does not necessarily mean that he knows how to conduct that office. If you want to develop your leadership skills, you would do well to repudiate the example of Barack Obama. Choose a better role model.

Lacking earned authority, Obama governs by making demagogic appeals to emotion, by scapegoating his opponents, and by stoking the fires of factional conflict.

Yesterday, to take an easy example, Obama's union allies stormed the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase Bank in New York and laid siege to the offices of Goldman Sachs. Today we discover that the Justice Department has opened an investigation of Goldman Sachs on charges of criminal fraud.

Does it matter that the bankers who run these organizations supported Obama's candidacy? Apparently, not. To coin a phrase, they are hoist with their own petard.

In Obama's narrative the proletariat rises up against its capitalist masters. You don't have to know what he is thinking; his strategy is being played out right before your eyes.

Yesterday, Dan Henninger observed and analyzed Obama's unfortunate tendency to attack, demonize, and blame others for his failings. Link here.

Henninger says that Obama is just acting like a community organizer, one who was brought up on the teachings of Saul Alinsky. In his words: "Defining, demonizing, and making a mockery of one's opponents was one of Alinsky's main rules for community organizers. But community organizers, though often charismatic, can also be annoying jerks."

To say the least.

To say more we should understand that Obama's approach repudiates leadership by consensus formation. In fact, it involves playing out a dialectic where contrasts are sharpened, not conciliated, where disagreements become fighting words, and where the desired outcome involves class conflict.

Set people against each other, convince them that they have no common interest, produce enmity among the body politic, and sit back waiting for the revolution.

That is the Alinsky way. It seems to be the only way that Obama knows.


Kurt said...

Nice analysis. Having worked in industry for many years, I would have to say that I have seen any number of business executives who did not know how to lead. But I get your point. The most successful, effective executives do know how to lead as you described.

I try to follow the adage, Do not attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity or mere incompetence. In the case of Obama, I have to wonder whether it is incompetence or a more direct desire to produce division and chaos (that is, malice towards the society). But as others have pointed out, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Schneiderman: Your analysis does fine at poking holes in The One, but it doesn't get you far if you try to apply it as a general theory. Lincoln had nil "earned authority" compared to his counterpart, Jefferson Davis, who had been a successful Senator, West Point grad, Sec of War, and soldier. Many of Lincoln's cabinet thought the same, e.g. Seward who aspired to lead Lincoln by the nose. We know how that worked out.

So, too, with other facets of your analysis. Both Roosevelts made many stem winders blasting their opponents as minons of Hell, Devil, & Co., but it would be a rash bet to claim were failures because of their demagoguery.

My own take is simple: The One is lazy. He doesn't like to work. He didn't write his own books, he's never built a business, and his political career has been greased by his melanin, and fueled by backstabbing. The Presidency, as Kennedy learned, has no real training ground. But the successful Presidents have had one facet: energy, working all the time. They might be able to fool people that they weren't (Eisenhower), but the tempo was always going. To be sure, energy isn't enough as Hoover and Carter show, but it's essential.

"Earned authority" is a mighty tricky yardstick. Grant, the hero of the Civil War, with proven executive experience, fared poorly in the White House. So too, Taft, nominally well qualified by his service in T. Roosevelt's Cabinet, not least by Roosevelt himself, but a colossal disaster in office. Madison was "father of the constitution" author of a big chunk of THE FEDERALIST, and Sec of State for years. His Presidency was another colossal disaster. Truman certainly did not feel he had "earned authority," and many others agreed. He was the Dangerfield of Presidents while in office, but looks a good deal better afterward. He had another facet that successful leaders have: a willingness to surround himself with able subordinates, who outshone him in the public eye (George Marshall.) Lincoln also had this quality: Seward, Stanton, Chase, the Blairs etc. The One's associates are a motely lot: Clinton, Geithner. The exceptions are Bush holdovers: Gates, Bernanke.

Laziness, an inability to tolerate first rate subordinates. I think that explains The One pretty well.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comments. Clearly, one would have to look at these leaders on a case by case basis to see whether the formula works or not. And I am glad that you bring up these cases, because each has its own complexity. Especially when you consider the policies that each man was implementing.

We might wonder whether history would have looked different if Lincoln had entered office with earned authority.

For having heard exactly one speech by Teddy Roosevelt he sounded a lot less demagogic than Franklin Roosevelt.

TR had been governor of New York state, had been a military leader, and had written his own books. He made people uncomfortable because he was not a machine politician and also because he became president when he was very young.

I think he had considerable earned authority, and he was a successful president.

But as Gregory says, Madison-- to say nothing of Jefferson-- had earned authority and were not very successful presidents.

Teddy Roosevelt wrote that the second Jefferson administration was a catastrophe.

Jefferson was perhaps also a charismatic figure-- like JFK-- and thus has maintained a good reputation.

These are some thoughts on a complicated issue. Thanks for contributing.

Anonymous said...

it always comes down to race, right? mr. koster(whom i know) knows that obama didn't write his own books. how can he? a black man after all.

and of course he's lazy.

it always comes down to race. and then turn around and scream that blacks play the race card. life is good.

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