Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Presidential Leadership

Yesterday I received an email from my niece asking for my opinion on leadership for her school newspaper. Here's what she asked:
Hi everyone! Kali here! For school I'm doing a newspaper, and I have a couple questions for you. Would you please take a few minutes to answer the following questions. Thanks in advance for your time!

#1. what do you think makes a good leader?

#2. what president do you think has displayed good leadership?

#3. do you think Obama is a good leader?

why or why not?
In thinking about her questions and my personal opinion on each, I thought I'd defer the context of my answers on President Obama's leadership to someone who perhaps has a better grasp of the political nature of some of these questions. I also wanted to make sure it was consistent with my understanding of what 'good' leadership is.

In doing a very quick google search using certain key words like 'Obama' and 'Leadership,' I came across an article in the top 3 or 4 hits that I think accurately describes both. Here are a few excerpts I have chosen from that article to answer the specific questions Kali was asking. The author and complete article can be found here and I would emphatically encourage you to read it. It seems to be an objective analysis of President Obama’s leadership.
Leadership, Obama Style
Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it. Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.

...It's the job of the president to be in the fray. It's his job to lead us out of it, not to run from it. It's his job to make the tough decisions and draw lines in the sand. But Obama really doesn't seem to want to get involved in the contentious decisions. They're so, you know, contentious. He wants us all to get along. Better to leave the fights to the Democrats in Congress since they're so good at them. He's like an amateur boxer who got a coupon for a half day of training with Angelo Dundee after being inspired by the tapes of Mohammed Ali. He got "float like a butterfly" in the morning but never made it to "sting like a bee."

...He doesn't need a chief of staff. He needs someone to shake him until he feels something strongly enough not just to talk about it but to act.

No Vision, No Message
The second problem relates to the first. The president just doesn't want to enunciate a progressive vision of where this country should be heading in the 21st century, particularly a progressive vision of government and its relation to business. He doesn't want to ruffle what he believes to be the feathers of the American people, to offer them a coherent, emotionally resonant, values-driven message -- starting with an alternative to Ronald Reagan's message that government is the problem and not the solution -- and to see if they might actually follow him.

...And that's where the problem of message comes in. This White House has no coherent message on anything. [emphasis added]

The Politics of the Lowest Common Denominator
And capping off all of these aspects of the president's leadership style is his preference for the lowest common denominator. That means you don't really have to fight, you don't have to take anybody on, you don't take any risks. You just find what the public is so upset about that even the Republicans would stipulate to it if forced to (e.g., that excluding people from health care because they have "pre-existing conditions" is something we can't continue to tolerate) and build it into whatever plan the special interests can hammer out around it.

... But you have to believe something.

I don't honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn't figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he's not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he's going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they're seeing right now is "liberalism," and they don't like what they see. I don't, either.

None of this is Leadership. It's not even 'bad' leadership which is not leadership at all but nothing more than pandering to the whims of others- typically those who serve the supposed leader's best interests, instead of the followers the leader is supposed to be leading [ie- serving].  No vision, no character or integrity, no direction, no example… No leadership.
 What you see IS always what you get! If what we’re seeing is floundering liberalism as the author of this article describes, then guess what? That’s what it is.
What they're seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That's a recipe for going nowhere fast...

So then, if this is NOT leadership that we're seeing in the current presidential example, then Leadership is, perhaps, the opposite. Leadership is strength, conviction, and direction through a clear vision based upon an ideological compass. It is a recipe for going where you want to be... as efficiently and effectively as possible.

 Who then would be a good example of such leadership?

Let's look at our 40th president, Ronald Reagan. Through his living example we have a timeless model of presidential leadership.

First and perhaps most important is that Leadership, at its core, begins with who you are. President Reagan was described by people who worked for him as a kind, humble, and decent person who was void of meanness and pettiness. To become an effective leader, in any arena, you must start with yourself. It begins with the necessary self-examination that leads you to first, confront the brutal reality of who you are and to intentionally work to improve and expand the personal qualities necessary to strengthen your character. Without character, nothing will work. A leader must be someone worth following. In the best-selling book Launching a Leadership RevolutionChris Brady and Orrin Woodward define a leader as ..the influence of others in a productive, vision-driven direction and is done through the example, conviction and character of the leader.

Have a Great Vision
Be a dream-maker. From the beginning, Ronald Reagan communicated an optimistic picture of America. He had campaigned on two major goals. The first was to revitalize the economy, and the second, to rebuild our military capability and restore our position in world leadership. And that is what he set out to do. “America is too great for small dreams,” said Ronald Reagan. This is so true for great leaders who are not satisfied with small dreams. Instead of trying to get just an edge over the Soviet Union, Reagan went after the total dismantling of the “Evil Empire.” And he succeeded. If you want to be a great leader, ask yourself and your team: What is the greatest dream we can possibly have for this organization? This is indeed what President Reagan did.

The Ability to Communicate
Having a vision of what needs to be done is crucial for a leader. But what truly distinguishes a leader from others is the ability to communicate this vision in such a compelling way as to attract followers who become excited about the vision and commit to achieving it. Reagan was not just a good communicator, but was called, “The Great Communicator.”

Offer Hope and Engage in Action
Reagan was the eternal optimist. He offered Americans a positive, uplifting vision of America and its future. He believed in freedom and therefore acted on behalf of the values and ideals that made it great. Unlike the current president, he did not criticize the very country he was chosen to lead nor did he apologize for its greatness or its strong Christian foundation. Ronald Reagan continually referred to the United States as The Shining City on the Hill. He matched his optimistic temperament with bold, persistent action. Everyone could actually ‘see’ this vision and feel good about it.

Build a Solid Team
Ronald Reagan accomplished so much as president because he delegated so much. He believed in appointing good people that shared his ideological convictions and that he could count on to carry out his policy. Reagan was a leader, not a manager and he surrounded himself with other leaders with strength of character, shared vision for America, and the willingness & commitment to serve its people. This is drastically different than the partisan politics and self-serving agendas we see rampant in the White House and Congress today.

Our position of leadership in the world today is in serious jeopardy as we don’t seem to have clear-cut objectives and goals and even less clear-cut strategies to achieve them. This is a direct result from a lack of leadership. Leadership is not political and it is not partisan. It is doing the right things for the right reasons no matter what the political ramifications. Margaret Thatcher in her great eulogy of Ronald Reagan summarized in one sentence his personal qualities and his great achievements: “In his lifetime, Ronald Reagan was such a cheerful and invigorating presence that it was easy to forget what daunting historic tasks he set himself. He sought to mend America's wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world and to free the slaves of Communism.” The Reagan legacy and President Reagan’s leadership example provide the guidelines for a future in which we have peace, freedom, and the flourishing of the human spirit, which will be a benefit not only to the United States but the whole world. It’s the very magic that can restore America as that Shining City on the Hill.

Here is a wonderful Tribute to Ronald Reagan.  For President Reagan's personal response to this debate... well, just watch this: Reagan's Response.

Well Kali, I hope this provides some thoughtful answers to the mighty middle school questions in your email. More adults need to be asking those very same questions and thinking hard on the answers. You're way ahead of the game.