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Channeling the Obama of '08

Seth Kahan is the author of the Washington Post bestseller, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, published by Jossey-Bass 2010.

What a difference two years makes. Here we are in the midst of incredibly complex change along with large-scale exacerbating circumstances. But, where is the engagement we felt so keenly in the months before November 2008?

Mr. President, if you're reading, here are six things you can do to rectify the situation and build the kind of participatory support you enjoyed before we elected you to the highest office in the land:

1. Communicate so people get it and spread it.
The "it" is not a precooked, hard-boiled message, not an elevator speech, not an answer. "It" is a verb, it is a conversation that cascades, a dialogue that arouses passion and creates its own social network.

2. Identify and energize your most valuable players.

People are at the heart of change. Take the time to engage the people who can make the biggest difference. Am I talking about your supporters? Well, that's one group - but there are others. You also need to get the participation of valuable people who may or may not be advocates including technical experts, practical visionaries, resource providers, students and professors, alliance builders and, yes, even detractors. Court these people and give them exciting ways to be part of the action.

3. Map the territory of change.
Do this by systematically listening to the stories of your most valuable players. Find out where change can go fast and where it will get bogged down. What do you listen for? Here are five things:
Stop lights - If someone says you are going to crash and burn, have them tell you more. Get to know these dire predictions of doom because within these failure fears is the heart of concern.
Caution lights - When people tell you that there is danger on the horizon, or big problems ahead, take note. Compile the individual answers intelligently and use them to delineate the cultural terrain you face.
Themes - Anything that is a pattern in the system is worth noting, even if it's false or derived from mistaken assumptions. Look beneath the surface to understand where it comes from.
High-value nuggets - As you listen to story after story, you will collect gems that point the way to big wins for multiple constituents.
Educational deficits - The story-listening process will teach you what people need to learn in order to engage and play a bigger game. Then, have their peers provide the education rather than you and your supporters. Let the lessons come from within the social networks of those who lack the information.

Finally, you must synthesize all that you learn and share it wide and far. Help people to see themselves, their concerns and hopes within the larger fabric of our nation at this important crossroads.

4. Accelerate change through communities that perform.

These are groups of people who share passion for a particular topic and put their passion into practice. These groups can advance your cause faster than you because they create systemic pull.

Communities that perform each have three flywheels that must be set into motion in order to deliver engagement. They must provide value to the change program, serve the community's concerns by delivering on high priorities specific to the group, and provide benefits to each person who participates. Get these three going at once and you have a powerful engine that will run all on its own.

5. Generate dramatic surges in progress through well-timed live events.
Special face-to-face gatherings can accelerate your programs when executed on a strategic timeline. Create events that bring your most valuable players together in high-value, high-leverage experiences designed to push things forward in leaps and bounds.

6. Welcome bottlenecks, and break through logjams.
Obstacles, hurdles and challenges are all part of change. Develop a special mentality: expect trouble and take advantage of it. Movement stops because multiple streams converge in a wreck. Each one of these stoppages is literally an opportunity to free up the system on several fronts at once. But you need special tools and tactics, such as trained facilitators who respect the power of the logjam and work intelligently to liberate the flow of change.

Getting change right means finding better ways to engage. It means developing the liberating structures that enable many more people to participate in the success we so desperately need.

By Seth Kahan

 |  October 12, 2010; 3:03 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice , Presidential Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Obama is failing at engaging the American public. Whatever he has achieved or is accomplishing is overshadowed by widespread loss of faith.

Having worked with leaders in large, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary agencies I have tremendous respect for the complexities of public office. It is very challenging and beyond the ken of most citizens. Nonetheless, the person at the top has an obligation to facilitate transparency and participation among those who care enough to get involved in earnest. We could use systematic outreach that focuses on sparking the participation of those who can progress public discourse and take action to help the country.

Sometimes I agree with Obama. Sometimes I don't. The fact remains he is our president. For that he has my allegiance as well as my earnest desire to see him succeed. Just as he can't stop until his term is complete, neither can our support diminish while he is in office.

Posted by: SethKahan | October 13, 2010 4:06 PM

quack, quack, welcome to the recovery, quack, quack...

Posted by: jeeemusna | October 13, 2010 2:37 PM

"Obama perpetually wears this "deer caught in a headlight" look."

Huh? I don't see that at all. Regardless of whether he's a 'great' leader, I think some small-minded, short-sighted people would be well-advised to remember the alternative in '08. Obama is at least trying to do the right thing for you, whether or not you realize or accept it (and he has had remarkable success in getting historic legislation passed in spite of the Party of No).

Can you imagine McCain and Palin dealing with this mess of an economy, to say nothing of the other pressing issues of the day? I can't, and I thank sweet Jesus I don't have to.

Posted by: lancemonotone | October 13, 2010 1:40 PM

It's amazing that Kahan believes that communication is the key. He is so off base it is ridiculous. The President is failing because of FAILED democratic policies. Most Americans have sent a very clear signal to Washington that they don't want these policies and don't agree with the CHANGES that come with them. All the communication in the world regarding Obama's failed policies will not change the minds of most American voters. Kahan and Obama just don't get it!!.

Posted by: RayK1 | October 13, 2010 1:33 PM

The president who campaigned for a more “open government” and “full disclosure” will not unseal his medical records, his school records, his birth records or his passport records. He will not release his Harvard records, his Columbia College records, or his Occidental College records—he will not even release his Columbia College thesis. All his legislative records from the Illinois State Senate are missing and he claims his scheduling records during those State Senate years are lost as well. In addition, no one can find his school records for the elite K-12 college prep school, Punahou School, he attended in Hawaii.

Posted by: hunter340 | October 13, 2010 1:32 PM

The first point is exactly wrong.

Obama did well because he didn't communicate other than to say "Hope and Change" over and over again.

As soon as he gets to specifics of his policy, he drops in the polls.

If people really don't want what you're forcing on them, you cannot "change" things.

Obama wants to pick our pockets to pay for things that he imagines we want. When people object, he dismisses them and blames the Republicans.

It never occurs to him that he's trying to force us down a path that we don't want to go and isn't good for the country.

Posted by: Skeptic1 | October 13, 2010 1:30 PM

The Republican part which is interested in widening the gap between the rich and the poor have done a number on this President. Too bad for the people who responded to this email that they don't have a reasonable expectation on this President that he can change things in less than two years that the previous administration destroyed the surplus and lots more. Could it be that they are really judging him by ideas other than facts. Could it be that they are lead by the misguided beliefs that they should have put to bed a long time ago. Don't worry if they give this country back to the Republicans they will be singing praises to this President, but look at what it will cost us. People wake up, don't give in to ides that aren't fact based and only serve to destroy your economic power. I don’t know how to articulate in a way that appeals to your good since. I can only ask that you think beyond your emotions. Those people that know and understand the tricks in play, please help these people understand, they are being used to their disadvantage. I’m not asking you to like the man, but at least respect that he’s working for your interest

Posted by: slovelace | October 13, 2010 1:23 PM

EARTH TO KAHAN: There is NOTHING Obama can do, guy! He's toast. What a joke. Do you have any idea how many people who voted for him to 2008 are not angry with themselves for being taken by this medicine show man! MILLIONS AND MILLIONS AND MILLIONS! Forget it, Kahan!

Posted by: georges2 | October 13, 2010 1:21 PM

quack, quack, hope & change, quack, quack...

Posted by: jeeemusna | October 13, 2010 1:03 PM

One only has to recognize that a newpaper and "leadership trainer" is writing an article instructing the sitting President of the United States on how to be a president to realize that Obama is not ready to be president. He is inexperienced, a terrible leader, unschooled in reality of the world, and simply, though very intelligent, lacking common sense and an overall understanding of the world and our Nation. He simply was the wrong man for the job. Seth Kahan just needs to realize it and write a real article explaining Obama's leadership failure beginning with his inability to fulfill the role of Commander in Chief.

Posted by: staterighter | October 13, 2010 12:55 PM

The only reason Obama had such great support during the election was because people did not really know him and the so called main stream media gave him an enormous biased boost. Now that the voters do know him and see the effect of what he has done, they want his power reduced so that he will have to compromise rather than ramming everything he and the Democrats wanted to do, correct or not, down the throats of the voters.
It is payback time for the people. I hope they correct a very poor situation with the upcoming election.
At least Obama has stopped blaming Bush.
At least I think he has anyway.

Posted by: nychap44 | October 13, 2010 12:44 PM

All the Democratic Liberal wing needs to do, is hand out license plates, or bumper stickers. " How are things Working out for You " "Keep us in office".

Posted by: dangreen3 | October 13, 2010 12:24 PM

He passed a healthcare the majority of americans didn't want. He's still avoiding the deporation of illegals in this country. Now he's trying to get the younger generation by offering tax breaks. Anything for a vote, even lying and cheating the public. When are we going to see the hearings for Rangel & Waters? Is it ok to break laws Obozo? You let the illegals break our laws. Is that what you teach your children? If they don't like a specific law it's ok to break like Rangel, Waters and the illegals.

Posted by: bailey50 | October 13, 2010 12:17 PM

The only thing for him to do now is wait for the end. He is not a movie star, he is not a preacher, he was suppose to be president, but he doesn't know how to do that either! Him and his family could take a permenant vacation, believe me he wont' be missed. He totally slaps the middle class time and time again. I can't wait to get this slimeball out of office.

Posted by: bailey50 | October 13, 2010 12:12 PM

Obama has been detached from the public which is due to fundamental difference in his up bringing which will not be able to change even with the education and intelligence. He never should have been a president but he should have just stayed as a community organizer.

Posted by: chaemoondriver | October 13, 2010 12:03 PM

Obama was never a 'professor' seabelly1...he was a part-time college instructor...kind of like a Grad Assistant....in other words, largely unemployed.

Posted by: twann9852 | October 13, 2010 12:02 PM

I didn't see 'stop spending like a drunken sailor'....I didn't see 'stop appealing to the values of only 30% of the country'....you missed the boat here.

Posted by: twann9852 | October 13, 2010 12:00 PM

Obama perpetually wears this "deer caught in a headlight" look. It must be total chaos behind the scene at the White House. He's miserable. Moochie's miserable. The American people are miserable. How about we all say thank you and just part ways?

Posted by: Desertdiva1 | October 13, 2010 11:57 AM

I am sure that as a professor, President Obama was phenomenally engaging; however, as a president, he sucks. If he were to take all of your advice, Mr. Kahan, I think he might have a chance of resurrecting his presidency. As it is, though, I think this Lazarus is staying in the tomb. Time and again President Obama chooses the role of preachy, teachy tool over that of leader. He scolds and acts not. Unless of course he acts to insult and confound his former base. An immediate example of this is his decision to challenge the court ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. I'm sure that sometime soon he will also instruct the Justice Department to challenge the recent, similar ruling re Don't Ask Don't Tell. And all this is supposedly done in the spirits of tradition and open discussion. Really? So oppression is now officially an American tradition? Thank you, Mr. Obama. There's your legacy. Now discuss.

Posted by: seabelly1 | October 13, 2010 7:39 AM

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