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Obama’s Leadership and the Tactics of Leading from the Center

Author: Samuel B. Bacharach

In the last few days, a lot has been made about “leading from the center.” A lot has been said about the virtues of trying to hold your team together, but hold it tighter at the core.  “Leading from the center” is not just a metaphor or analogy, but a practical decision about where and when you spend limited resources in a limited period of time.  The center is now in vogue.  Early reviews of Barack Obama’s leadership style imply that he has made a decision to lead from the center. Most discussions of this decision have been in terms of ideology, implying that he chose to lean neither to the left nor to the right, but he adopted a moderate strategy in order to envelop the majority, which he assumes is at the center.  But leading from the center, as many successful corporate leaders know, is not simply an ideological decision, but a tactical decision that dictates with whom you’re going to spend your time, whom you’re going to mobilize, and where you’re going put your precious time and resources.  In this day and age, there are strong pressures to make decisions and implement policies.  A leader like Obama has to decide which people he needs to pull in and which people he can put less effort into mobilizing.  Leaders face four options:

  • Do they spend more time with their ideological base to assure that they have their core with them?
  • Do they spend more time with those with whom they share very little ideology and hope that they can persuade them and bring them along?
  • Do they spend more time with those who don’t agree with them but are convincible?
  • Do they spend more time with those who don’t agree with and are pulling away?

These are four unique options. The first, covering your base, implies that if your core supporters are behind you, you might be able to ram something through. The problem with this option is that it creates groupthink and a sense of cabal, the sense that everything is being pushed by an inner circle. The second, trying to convert the ideological opposition is the Hail Mary pass.  If you succeed, you win it all.  If you fail, the danger is that you only strengthen your most vocal opponents.  The last two, the strategy of trying to pull in those leaning toward you and assuring those who might drift away, is at the heart of leading from the center.  Clearly, Obama has decided for the time being to avoid the dangers of the appearance of leading by inner circle or the promises of a Hail Mary pass.  He is going to have to rely on his micro-political competence to persuade and convince. That is what leading from the center is all about.



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