Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)
“We didn’t come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together”
(Telling students at the University of North Carolina that he and first lady Michelle Obama had “been in your shoes” and didn’t pay off their student loans until eight years ago).
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, 44th and current President of USA
Today’s article is the twelfth in a series of articles (1st Steve Jobs, 2nd Michael Dell, 3rd Warren Buffet, 4th Bill Gates, 5th Larry Ellison, 6th Eric Schmidt, 7th CIOs and the ideal management style, 8th Louis V Gerstner, 9th late Steve Jobs and Tim Cook’s, 10th Richard Branson and Sergio Marchionne), analysing current and past leaders to ascertain how senior management including Chief Information Officer’s (CIOs) can learn better management by applying the management practices of leadership, practiced by these leaders.
I must admit this is the first time that I decided to delve into the management style of a national country leader. During the last American election I was quite impressed by the way that Obama fought the election on several fronts, including his great oratory skills, defeating Hillary Clinton, using social media and the Internet to raise funds for his campaign, his views on America’s role in the world and Health care to name a few. Now that we are approx. half way through his Presidency, I wanted to find out whether there was a consensus on his Presidency, i.e was he perceived to be good, bad or indeed great. I personally thought that he could go down in the annals of history as not only the first Black President of America but as one of the greatest.
As always, my personal view is that he needs to communicate to the American public his strategy in more detail, coupled with his intentions for the future, along with his successes. For a President who successfully helped solve the American car crisis and introduced America’s first ever Health legislation, he certainly doesn’t seem to be communicating that to the public effectively enough (Maybe he needs to blow his trumpet on his small and large successes to date). He seems to forget that his stakeholders’ are the public and that he needs to communicate with them the reasons why he is the best candidate to secure America’s future prospects.
My writing style had to change as I was not just analysing a sitting President but was also writing about the management style of a manager who is managing an economy and not just an organisation. In comparison terms, that is akin to comparing, well, therein lies the problem, one cannot compare any organisation to a huge country such as USA. This is a country and it is managed by a bond between both the public and private sector.
Frank Burke, American Thinker said, “The President’s inner circle has, for the most part, consisted of Chicago machine politicians. The appointment of numerous Czars, whose functions are neither well-articulated nor understood, has led to confusion on all levels and among the public”.
This seems to be a view shared by David Brooks, NY Times, “Obama has been a delegator and a convener. He sets the agenda, sketches broad policy outlines and then summons some Congressional chairmen to dominate the substance. This has been the approach with the stimulus package, the health care law, the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and, so far, the Biden commission on the budget.
As president, Obama has proved to be a very good Senate majority leader — convening committees to do the work and intervening at the end.
All his life, Obama has worked in non-hierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a non-hierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favours a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.
Still, I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama’s actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.
But this is who Obama is, and he’s not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean”.
This comment from Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and former adviser to President Obama provides a unique insight into his management style (Courtesy of Dave Schuler, The Glittering Eye),”If you wrote Barack Obama a memo before the meeting, it is a virtual certainty that he will have read it. If you seek to explain the memo you wrote to him during the meeting, he will cut you off, and he will be irritated. If he, as the leader of the meeting, will ask one or two questions to kick the tires, but will basically focus on how whatever subject you’re talking about fits with the broad vision and approaches of his presidency.
He will basically take the attitude if you’re his financial advisor, that if you can’t — it’s up to you to figure out whether preferred stock or subordinated debt is the appropriate financial instrument for your bailout, and that if he doesn’t trust you to figure it out, he’ll get a new financial adviser, but that is not the question on which he is going to spend time”.
Obviously, every President has faced their fair share of exceptional challenges, highlighted again, the need for direct communication as Lurita Doan, Townhall said, “Obama exhibited colossal managerial negligence in refusing to communicate directly with BP leadership for almost two months. Then, when this negligence was publicized, Obama opened communications and extorted the arbitrary sum of $20 billion dollars to cover liabilities. Twenty billion dollars, without full knowledge of all the facts, without the benefit of a full investigation of the causes and without a final solution for the problem, under the control of one of Obama’s Czars just looks like a slush fund”.
NEIL KING JR. and JONATHAN WEISMAN, Wall Street Journal explains further in great detail how Obama, conducts his office and provides further details into his unique management style, “In a White House ritual new with this administration, the president gathers with his advisers every weekday morning for an Oval Office update and debate on the economy. The breadth of topics is wide, from the underemployed to childhood obesity, and Mr. Obama often dives into the minutiae.
In the sessions, according to those who attend, the president sometimes chafes at his advisers’ limitations, quizzing them on points raised by critics or asking them to do justice to a view other than their own. At times he quotes from letters sent to the White House to counter a stance taken by his team.
A president’s management style can set the tone for an administration. Jimmy Carter was a famed micromanager, often at odds with his own advisers, and he caught a lot of Beltway criticism for his focus on policy details. “If the two risks are operating at too generalized a level or micromanaging, you need to find a balance between the two,” says Peter Orszag, the White House budget director.
In early July, the president ordered a briefing on derivatives — financial contracts that track the return on stocks, bonds, currencies or other benchmarks. Critics had been raising questions about administration proposals to regulate certain derivatives, such as credit-default swaps, which many blame in part for the financial crisis. With advisers gathered round on the Oval Office’s twin sofas, Mr. Obama said he was concerned that the administration hadn’t struck the right balance.
Its proposal called for standard derivatives to be traded on an exchange, bringing them into the open. Critics were calling the proposal too timid because it also would allow “customized” derivatives to continue trading privately. “What is to assure that this won’t drive all derivatives off the exchange?” the president asked, according to Mr. Emanuel.
He says Mr. Obama was frustrated his team wasn’t offering up a full range of views on how to approach derivatives regulation. “Get me some other people’s opinions on this,” Mr. Emanuel recalls the president as saying. “I want more than what’s in this room.”
On July 1, advisers gave Mr. Obama a briefing on “House Prices, Consumer Debt and Consumption.” Among their charts was one showing how homeowners during the boom used the rising value of their houses to borrow more against them. At the end, the president pushed the presentation aside. “Guys, this is great research,” he said, according to Mr. Emanuel. “But you’re telling me that people have been using their houses as ATMs. I could have told you that.”
Letters from constituents appear to play a role in shaping the president’s thinking. Each day, the White House staff combs through mounds of letters and picks 10 for Mr. Obama to read. In May, one from a woman in Georgia caught his eye. She said she had asked a bank to refinance her house, under the administration’s plan to help struggling homeowners, but had been turned down. She mentioned that her “loan-to-value” ratio wasn’t excessive — her mortgage was for no more than 80% of the house’s value.
Mr. Obama scrawled in the margin “Is this how the ratio is supposed to be calculated?” and sent the letter to one of his economists, Mr. Goolsbee, according to a White House adviser”.
The stark contrast between managing organisation’s is made clearer by Steven Cohen, Huffington Post, “Obama relies on a combination of his own intellect, a small circle of trusted advisers and a larger group of outside experts.
Ronald Reagan began the process of deconstructing the federal government’s capacity. This effort to “starve the beast” and destroy federal capacity was reversed during the Clinton era as Vice President Gore led a well-intentioned effort to reinvent government, but the forces of disintegration picked up renewed momentum during the Bush years of 2001-2009. During the Presidency of Bush the latter, federal agencies that needed to build capacity for a new task were required to demonstrate that the capacity could not be found and purchased in the private sector. The underlying assumption of federal management during the Bush Presidency was that government was the enemy and the private sector was the great repository of management competence in America.
The “make or buy decision” requires that every well managed organization constantly ask itself: “Should we do this in-house or should we outsource?” That is a question that should be addressed pragmatically: “what would work best?” Management in the U.S. federal government has the answer provided for them: buying from the private sector is better than making it in the government. In an article I wrote in Public Administration Review in 2001, I argued for what I called “functional matching.” I wrote that some tasks are best performed by government (especially policing), some by non-profits (for example mission-driven health and social welfare programs) and some by private firms (customer driven services and manufacturing).
At the local level, government services are visible and have an immediate impact. While ideology plays a role locally, it doesn’t usually dominate. In New York, the debate over charter schools has an ideological component, but the visibility of education performance measures provides evidence that moves the argument beyond ideology. Local officials are instantly accountable if water is not delivered, waste is not removed, fires are not put out and criminals are not apprehended. In New York City, most social services are now delivered by non-profit organizations under contract to the city’s government. No one thinks about this practice as an ideological privatization strategy. It’s simply the best way to help people in need. As a result of constant pressure to do more with less over the past three decades, New York City government has improved its performance and capacity.
In Washington D.C., symbolism and ideology drive agency management and performance takes a back seat. The story at the federal level is characterized by management incompetence. We have seen it in the Department of Interior during the Gulf oil spill, during the horror show of FEMA during Katrina, and when we analyze the overuse of contractors by an overly-small military presence during the War in Iraq. The lack of concern for capacity and management excellence has driven superb civil servants out of public service, destroyed organizational capability and made it impossible for the government to keep up with a more complicated and technologically based economy. The result has been the type of government performance we have seen in the Gulf of Mexico”.
His desire to formulate effective teams and to achieve the best for his country is highlighted by the article, Inside the Presidents club by NANCY GIBBS; MICHAEL DUFFY (Some excerpts), “There is no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies,” Harry Truman once observed, and the modern Presidents are living proof. By the time Clinton made peace with Obama, he was also so close to the entire Bush family–vacationing with the father, raising money with the son, even escorting Barbara at Betty Ford’s funeral–that the Texas clan had bestowed a nickname: Brother from Another Mother.
Now in an age of global celebrity, when Presidents live longer and larger than ever, they retain unmatched influence long after they leave office. Plus they’re the only ones who know what the job does to a person.
They called him after he won. “They were all incredibly gracious,” Obama said. “But I think all of them recognized that there’s a certain loneliness to the job … Ultimately, you’re the person who’s going to be making decisions … You can already feel that fact.” He wanted his club initiation to include the entire membership, so he asked Bush to host a luncheon for all four living Presidents in early January. This request caused the Bush White House to gulp hard: Even Carter? aides asked. He has criticized everything we have done for nearly eight years. Yes, Obama said, Carter too”.
I have been reading the Time magazine since a very early age and wanted to conclude with observations from one of the greatest writers for Time (in my opinion), Fareed Zakaria and his article, The Strategist, “In the central battle in the war on terrorism, Obama adopted many of the Bush Administration’s aggressive tactics, used them more aggressively and achieved greater success. Republicans find it difficult to attack Obama credibly on the core issue of fighting America’s enemies because he outflanked them on the right.
When asked to describe the Obama Doctrine, the President has chosen not to respond directly, but he explained that he believes the U.S. must act with other countries. “[Mine is] an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil. It’s a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources and capacity,” he told TIME.
A great deal of foreign policy is crisis management. “Stuff happens,” the President said, “and you have to respond.”
The strategy of “rebalancing” might well be the centrepiece of Obama’s foreign policy and what historians will point to when searching for an Obama Doctrine. It is premised on a simple, powerful recognition. The center of global economic power is shifting east. In 10 years, three of the world’s five largest economies will be in Asia: China, Japan and India. The greatest political tensions and struggles might also be in Asia as these countries seek political, cultural and military power as well. If the U.S. is going to be the central global power, it will need to be a Pacific power.
In a speech to the Australian parliament, Obama signaled America’s intent. “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” he said.
Good foreign policy Presidents (like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush) managed a complex set of challenges expertly, making few costly errors. Bad ones (like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson) made mistakes that cost America in lives, treasure and prestige. But great foreign policy Presidents (like Harry Truman) created enduring structures and relationships that produced lasting peace and prosperity. Obama has been a good foreign policy President; he has the opportunity to become a great one”.
More Info and Reading:
Barack Obama: A Management Appraisal – American Thinker
Convener in Chief – NY Times
The Obama Management Style – The glittering eye
Obama’s Management Style: Bowing and Posturing – Townhall
A President as Micromanager: How Much Detail Is Enough? – WSJ
Changing Obama’s Management Style Alone Will Not Prevent the Next Environmental Catastrophe – Huffington post
Inside the Presidents club by NANCY GIBBS; MICHAEL DUFFY, Time Magazine
The Strategist by Fareed Zakaria, Time Magazine