BLG Leadership Insights

Temperament and Leadership: Obama vs. Roosevelt

When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes met Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 he said that he had a ”second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament!”

Temperament is the “great separator” argued legendary political scientist Richard Neustadt in his oft read classic Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. “Experience will leave its mark on expertise; so will a man’s ambition for himself and his constituents. But something like that ‘first-rate’ temperament is what turns know-how and desire into his personal account.” Neustadt writes.

A fine temperament denotes a particular mixture of ease, poise, and timing. Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, offers a vivid account of President Obama’s first year in office and dedicates a chapter to President Obama’s legendary “cool under pressure” disposition.

Barack Obama came to office with both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. Even his staunchest opponents in Congress didn’t try to deny that he was smart and had an easy rapport with people he met personally. The challenge for Obama concerned his  public temperament and the way his character and style connected to the American people.

Temperament does not always make or break leaders. It’s not a sufficient measuring stick to determine the strength and weakness of a leader. Any leadership position presents temperamentally well-suited managers and bosses with a hundred ways to fail. Obama’s easygoing temperament improves his odds of handling the ongoing challenges and unpredictable events that continue to determine his fate. A good temperament can help ease factionalism and combat challenges that arise during any leader’s tenure, but ultimately execution remains the crucial test of any leader.

In an age when the public gets to ‘know’ the president intimately temperament may seem like an increasingly important factor in presidential elections. Still, America’s leaders haven’t always possessed great temperaments. Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush have all famously lacked a solid temperament and have struggled to connect with the public because of it. Temperament, while helping leaders smooth tensions, isn’t always a key to success. It might be less of a “great separator” and more of a helpful knack.

Picture credit: Amy Arch

BLG Leadership Insights

The Leadership Debate Beneath the Oil Slick: Obama vs. Hillary Again

Organizational leadership is a question of balance, focus, and consistency. Leaders in organizations have to sustain the consistency of a perpetual campaign while keeping an eye on the ball, as well as constituents, agendas, allies, resistors, strategies, and tactics.

There is one critical point in which leaders sometimes stumble and from which it is often difficult to recover. It is the trip-wire that lies between the drama of rallying people to your side and the pragmatics of execution.

Leaders rally others to their position with dramaturgical language, by a sense of commitment, and are often exhausted by their own drama so they begin to allocate the responsibility of execution to others. In the case of President Obama that is what almost tripped him up with health care. In the case of George W. Bush that’s what tripped him up with the promises he made at the World Trade Center and his foreign policy agenda.

A classic example of a president who was able to sustain momentum for the short period of time he was with us was John F. Kennedy. In a specific case, he promised to get America to the moon before the end of the decade and he did. He successfully coupled the sense of urgency with resource commitment.

There are times that leaders must become managers. They must not only become managers, but micro-managers. They must understand that they have not just moral responsibility, not just ideological responsibility, but the micro-responsibility of execution.

The micro-analysis is the true test of a leader’s competency. The problem is that some issues needs micro-management more than other issues. President Obama yesterday delivered a $20-billion dollar promise from BP. He was able to rally people around the idea and use political muscle to get what he wanted. The core of the $20-billion promise demanded a different talent than what is needed to clean up the oil spill. Cleaning up the gulf will demand micro-management. It will demand not simply drama, but the translation of drama into the skills of execution.

During the election there was a great distinction made between Hillary Clinton as a manager and Obama as a leader. There was never a question of Obama’s vision; he was haunted by questions of his managerial capacity. Constantly we heard the distinction between Obama as a visionary and Hillary as a person who could get things done. Those questions have now come to the surface again as we hear more and more nostalgia and a bit of lament among the Hillary supporters. Obama faces the trip-wire that all visionary leaders face sooner or later. Can they deliver? Can they manage under crisis? In a real sense visionary leaders have to learn how to translate promise into execution and translate hope into realization.

Pragmatic and proactive leaders have to deal with the micro-issues of resource allocation, accountability, human resource management, and get into the details of the game. In a time of crisis, as we’ve learned from such leaders as Eisenhower, logistical nuts-and-bolts involvement is the final test of leadership. When you lead you can’t just deal in promises, but you must jump into the nitty-gritty business of everyday action.

Picture Credit: Mega Beth

BLG Leadership Insights Features

Obama & My Mother’s Coalition Strategy

“Coalition” is a word that brings with it mixed reactions. Among academicians, there has been some wonderful work done on coalition theory.  In the world of practice, coalitions are often seen as a necessary political tool to achieve particular ends.  Leaders pushing agendas treat coalitions as nuisances they need to put up with rather than a mechanism to establish a cooperative enterprise. Successful coalitions are put in place before the fact. They are part and parcel of an ongoing process. Unsuccessful coalitions are often a weak afterthought and put in place after the fact.

Imagine for a moment the differences between the coalition mobilized by George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War and the one mobilized by George W. Bush for the War in Iraq.  Bush, Sr. understood that coalitions are necessary for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Coalitions enhance the legitimacy of your effort.  When you have a coalition, your effort is seen as more legitimate.  Obviously the more people who rally around a cause, the more legitimate the cause.
  2. Coalitions help overcome resistance and spread the risk.  The more people you have on board, the less any one party has to lose.

George W. Bush Jr. engaged in coalition building as a token exercise which he felt compelled to do. He never totally appreciated  the legitimizing utility of a coalition, always fearing that coalitions would undermine his unitary effort.

There are two reasons why leaders don’t form coalitions

  1. They are afraid of what economist’s call the “free rider”—the individual who will do absolutely nothing, and in fact, may become a disruptive Trojan horse who will destroy the coalition from within.
  2. They feel that the compromises aren’t worth it.

When leaders find that these conditions exist, they will proceed to mobilize some while excluding others.  The problem is–what do you do when this mobilization fails? Can you go back and re-invite those you excluded the first time around? Maybe, but maybe not. In the best of all worlds, you can renegotiate and achieve a compromise that you previously didn’t have. But, in a realistic world, governed by ego, self-interest, and hurt feelings, a new invitation in the context of not being invited the first time is unlikely to yield a cohesive coalition.

I remember the adage my mother used to say–better to invite a lot of guests and hope that some will go home early rather than have a few guests and a number of angry people who resent that you didn’t invite them.  It seems to me that the recent healthcare summit proved my grandmother right.  Big coalitions can be whittled down to small coalitions, but it is harder to make small coalitions into big ones.

You can’t coalesce after the fact.

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