Will Obama be ready for the next crisis?
Neither political experience nor lack thereof has predicted the effectiveness of a president. Being president is something you learn on the job.
President Kennedy knew this when he requested Robert McNamara, then president of Ford, to become Secretary of State. When McNamara declined, Kennedy said, "There is not a training program for presidents." Kennedy understood that all leaders, including presidents, are inadequate for the jobs they hold. He knew that leaders are not in their jobs because they have the answers, but rather because someone believes they can find the answers.
President Obama came into the presidency lacking in both depth and breadth of experience. Yet, in just 18 months, President Obama has now faced more demands than most of us will experience in a lifetime. He has sent troops to the battle front, wrestled with a tanked economy, pushed a health care bill through congress, recommended two supreme court judges, and faced an oil disaster, to name just a few.
Although we may rate his success differently, President Obama is getting exactly what he needs to become a better president: Demands... big, ambiguous, and complicated demands.
The big question for President Obama is: "Can he translate these demands into new skills and insights fast enough to be ready for the next crisis?" To answer "yes" to this question, President Obama must become more intentional about what his experience is trying to teach him. He must take the time to get the message of his experience.
Letting go of past successes
When President Truman (who is rated among the top ten presidents) met Stalin, he felt that if he could just shake his hand and look him in the eye he could build a relationship of trust. This seemed a fair approach for a country boy from Missouri. However, Truman learned quickly that he had to let go of this naïve approach towards Stalin and take a firm stand against him.
President Obama brought some of the same naivety of Truman to the White House, thinking he would be able to simply reach across the aisle and people would change their mind.
The risk for Obama is falling prey to the Peter Principle and sticking with what got him here. This principle declares, "Within a bureaucracy, leaders will rise to their level of incompetence." The reason for failure to grow is that leaders keep doing what they have always done. The temptation is to try and force the path to meet their skills rather than adapt their skills to the path.
Fortunately Obama, and other leaders, are not doomed to become incompetent as the principle suggests. If leaders are willing let go and challenge their comfort zone, they can break the cycle. Leaders who put demands on themselves that force them to let go of the past are more able to challenge their outdated thinking. Obama is experiencing these types of demands.
However, within these demands, he needs to define the critical path forward and ask himself what he needs to stop and start doing to walk in a new path. He must take the time to more intentionally ask himself and a few honest colleagues what he needs to let go of.
Internalizing New Successes
Amid the missteps Obama has made, he has also achieved many successes. Some of these are big, but many are small and unnoticeable to the press or the public. His challenge now is to make sure he is internalizing the message of his successes. If he is missing his successes, he is slowing down his readiness.
Consider the recent MIT research that found that the brain actually fires when we have a success, not when we make mistakes. Thus, an anchoring occurs when we notice something worked. Our challenge is to make sure we notice our successes.
Obama needs to make sure he sees his own progress, not in an arrogant way but in a self-reaffirming way. We are investing billions of dollars in his education. We need him to make sure he is capturing and anchoring the lessons of his experience. He needs to be more intentional about internalizing what he has done right so he can leverage this experience.
No matter what side of the political aisle you sit, we all need President Obama to succeed. And although I do not agree with many of his directions, I do think he is ready enough to face the next crisis.
The next crisis will give President Obama an opportunity to demonstrate what he has learned from his new experiences and will also expose a whole new set of limitations. It is a cycle that neither he nor anyone else can escape.
August 13, 2010; 11:18 AM ET |
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