Leadership Experts: Obama is No ‘A’ Student
On November 2, Americans will cast their votes in what will be the first official review of President Barack Obama’s performance. Ahead of the crucial, mid-term vote, 10 of the world’s top professors of leadership and management have assessed Obama against some of the core tenants of leadership — vision, execution and results. While these leadership gurus have given Obama passing marks, he is far from an A student.
President Obama earned a B+ for setting a strategy and communicating and selling his goals to Americans. The grades were inspired heavily by the way his speeches galvanized voters on the 2008 campaign trail.
At the gate, faculty judged Obama as a masterful orator, delivering clear messages that Americans could relate to and believe in. “Yes we can,” peppered with a few “hows” gave voters a sense that Obama was capable of just about anything — check one for any leader hoping to inspire loyalty.
So strong was the buy-in that some professors used his campaign and victory speeches as fodder for classroom discussions about good communication.
“I showed my students his victory speech,” says Manfred F. R. Kets De Vries, director of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Centre. “It was moving. People don’t realize that you cannot over communicate.”
But Obama as a candidate compared with Obama as president has given some faculty pause.
“His campaign speeches gave the American people hope that he would not work with lobbyists and that he would change Washington,” recalls Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School. “When he was in office, the first thing he did was cut deals with lobbyists for health care. So the people started listening to what other people said he was doing, rather than to what he said he was doing.”
Broken promises are worthy of a dunce cap in George’s eyes, causing him to drop Obama’s grade from what would have been an A in 2009 to a C-.
And his current rhetoric is missing a key ingredient — a fresh vision for a recession-battered country.
“I assumed on January 20, perhaps naively, that he’d give us a vision of where the country was going to go, and would set that out as a long-term plan,” George says. “He chose not to do that, nor has he done so since.”
As Obama moved from the campaign to governance, he made another key communication gaffe.
“We know that if you’re in a crisis, the last thing you need to do is motivate people by giving a sense of their standing on a burning platform,” says Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. “He needs to start giving us a comprehensive vision on how we’re going to get out of this crisis. Otherwise, people feel fear.”
Sonnenfeld gives Obama a B+ “for honoring his campaign commitments on health care and economic stabilization. He showed a steady hand and rescued some key industries. But the nation’s priorities are a moving target, and he cannot lost sight of that.”
University of Michigan’s Noel Tichy is still waiting for Obama to deliver what “a teachable point of view” in the style of Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of GE.
“Jack Welch’s motto was speed, simplicity and self confidence,” Tichy says, recalling his time at the helm of General Electric’s leadership academy, Crotonville. “Self-confident leaders can make things simple. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were masters at it. Now we’ve got a leader who needs to learn that lesson.”
While President George W. Bush faced criticism for being overly simplistic as a speaker, Obama is gaining a reputation for the opposite.
“When you read Obama’s speeches, they’re beautiful,” says Warren Bennis, of USC’s Marshall School of Business. “They’ll go down as some of the most brilliant essays. But none of them has a sound bite. Where is Reagan’s, ‘Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall?’”
Lacking that, the media yawns when he delivers amazing speeches, such as his December 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Bennis says.
The solution? Tichy prescribes the same basics he shares with his students: “Make a case for change and how we’re going to get there. Don’t make it convoluted.”
Execution can be a thorny subject for executives and politicians like Barack Obama: it’s no good having a new product or idea if you cannot get it out the door.
On execution, faculty have delivered the most criticism of Obama’s performance, scrawling a B- across his mid-term report.
Under fire are his priorities, the people advising him, and a growing rift between the West Wing and Wall Street.
The leadership experts give mixed marks for Obama’s initial priorities. USC’s Bennis awards Obama an A for execution, but says that Obama should have begun his term with a focus on job creation.
“That would have gotten people to the polls. Compare that to what Roosevelt did in the mid-1930s by creating the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), which in a week’s time brought millions of people to work. That’s where people’s visceral strings ares,” says Bennis.
Bennis, who campaigned for Roosevelt in the 1930s, commends Obama for getting “a hell of a lot done, but not the things that people experience every day.”
“It’s time for Obama to rethink his priorities,” says Michael Useem, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.
To do that, Obama might subscribe to one of the basic tenants of sound leadership — forming a diverse team of advisors, from a mix of professional and theoretical backgrounds, who aren’t afraid to second-guess their Commander-in-Chief.
“Leadership 101 is remembering that you sit in the Oval Office, but it’s the direct reports who make the policies rise or fall,” says Useem. “In that sense, the team is more important than any individual in it.”
One of his lowest marks, a C, comes from Harvard’s Bill George. Obama’s lack of experience in business requires a safe ring of seasoned advisors by his side, according to George.
“Instead, he surrounded himself with a narrow team of people he’d worked closely with for years. Every leader needs to make sure that they surround themselves with skills they don’t have,” George says.
Other appointments that baffle George? Obama’s National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon, and secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, the former Governor of Kansas who wields little experience in health care.
Obama cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to business leaders, says Sonnenfeld.
“We have a very progressive generation of business leaders right now that want to help and are being ignored. People like Anne Mulcahy, Jaime Dimon, Jim McNerney, Jr. of Boeing, and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa. Even Warren Buffet hasn’t been brought into the discussions,” Sonnenfeld says.
In giving Obama a B for results, the leadership gurus said they were impressed with what the president has accomplished, despite significant strains on his policies from both sides of the political spectrum.
“When he assumed office, he was facing probably the most difficult, complex, and long-range problems that any president in U.S. history — possibly with the exception of George Washington — has ever faced,” says USC’s Bennis. “I don’t recall a president who’s had as negative and divisive a Congress in the last 100 years. How can he accomplish so much given the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Great Recession? He’s done a remarkable job.”
Other professors craved more.
“He has averted what could have been the worst recession that any of us have ever experienced,” says Angel Cabrera, president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management. “To me, that’s an amazing accomplishment. But it’s hard to sell. People are hurting and you’re telling them, ‘be happy you’re only hurting a little bit, because the alternative could have been disastrous.’”
No matter how you tally his results, they are still invisible to most Americans, warns Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and head of the MIT Leadership Center.
“What people see is high unemployment, services being cut by local government, and huge debt,” Ancona says.
That’s a shame, Ancona says, awarding him a B.
“We have to give this man credit for passing health care legislation, getting some educational and financial regulation reform through, cutting the financial crisis short and cutting forces in Iraq, despite the odds.”
The shelf life of Obama’s results is also questionable. Susan Ashford, Professor of Management and Organizations at Michigan’s Ross School, says, “he got health care through, but it’s not through solidly. Everyone’s chipping away at it. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve changed something.”
His harshest critique — a C — came from Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. “A stimulus that didn’t stimulate, but that nonetheless raised the deficit; financial regulation that didn’t really fix things; and health care reform that didn’t go far enough. Most of it doesn’t go into effect for years, so you get the criticism now and the benefits much later. Bad idea.”
Goodbye Mr. Nice Guy?
So is it time for President Obama to change course and take a tougher stance with opponents?
“When you go into a thick lawn of grass, you have to pull the machine back and come in with more speed to cut the lawn,” says Wharton’s Useem. “After the November election, there will be a momentary pulling back and a decision not to waver in the mission but rather to adjust the tactics.”
Other faculty are dubious that Obama will alter his inner circle enough to really shake up his priorities. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 15 that White House officials were no longer looking to fill Larry Summer’s shoes with a corporate chieftain, adding fuel to the fire brewing between Obama and the very people who sign off on U.S. jobs.
It may be time for Obama to toughen up.
“Likeability is overrated. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, compromise often doesn’t work — because in the end, no one is happy,” says Stanford’s Pfeiffer.
If Obama can set a new vision and manage the story of his presidency while honing his execution skills, the professors measuring Obama’s leadership credentials might just boost his grade point average before 2012.