Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama, You and the Paradox of Leadership

Tuesday night Obama walked carefully along the razor's edge of leadership: trying to be both realistic and optimistic. It's a tough balancing act.

If the current and near term reality is pretty bad, reminding us of that is a downer. But if turning that around requires that we have faith and believe in the future, Obama has to be brimming with optimism. Many of the commentaries this morning tried to put him in one camp or the other, either praising (mostly) or criticizing (very few that I could find, except from the most predictable voices) his optimism or realism.

Done well, the optimism prevents the realism from becoming cynical. And the realism prevents the optimism from becoming naive.

It is a challenge many senior authorities are facing right now. How much bad news can I deliver to my people without being dismissed as The Prince of Darkness? How optimistic can I be if I am not sure myself that everything eventually will be ok or that I even know what ok will look like in the future?

To me, it sounded as if Obama decided, and rightly so, that what David Brooks and other commentators have been saying about the current condition is right: this is a psychological issue as much as it is a policy issue. The stimulus plan, the bank and auto bailouts, the mortgage relief program and all the rest will not break the economic gridlock (see what has happened, or not happened, so far)until you and I have confidence that things will get better, that in every way we stop selling short and make consumption and investment bets on the future.

Having sound policy is relevant but not controlling.

Another leadership skill in periods of uncertainty and chaos is buying time. The wolves are at the door, maybe even calling for your head, and you know that it is going to take time to turn the situation around. Throwing the wolves some red meat can be effective in calming them down.

Obama did that last night. He said that we should not make policy out of anger, but then he said he was angry at all those fat cats and their fancy trips, bonuses and jet planes and that none of that bad stuff would happen any more on his watch...or on our dime. Eliminating corporate jets or bonuses is not going to solve anything, but it might buy Obama some time by temporarily relieving some populist frustration and anger. Didn't it make you feel good that Obama said he was going to get those bad guys, just like it felt good when George W. Bush said that he was going to get those bad guys who perpetrated 9/11?


Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...


Good post.
The question is, How much time can he buy?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hello Marty,

You, those around me and most pundits I've read and heard think O did exactly what he needed to - educate and calm people. I wanted more concrete data than he offered in the speech, but those seem to be rolling out each subsequent day.
And I liked your optimism/realism assessment; that was helpful.

Your close was like an unexpected twist of lime in a final smooth sup of honey tea...evoking George Bush's promise to get the 9/11 perpetrators!


Anonymous said...

President Obama does a pretty good job of balancing realism with optimism, but in doing so, he delays exercising the leadership necessary for adaptive change in our country. With his realism, he also expresses a desire for us to assign blame to others, e.g; the wall street "fat cats", as well as the many straw men that argue against his policies. He may be buying some time figure out a strategy, but sooner or later he'll have to do the difficult work that adaptive leadership requires.

Franklincovey said...

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