Our Own Responsiblity
The most impressive leadership qualities we have seen in Barack Obama during the campaign and transition are his steady temperament, goal-oriented discipline, ability to listen and relate to everyday Americans, tremendous communication skills, passion for public service, keen intelligence and sense of humor. Channeling Lincoln, he has been able to rise above personal or partisan spite or vengeance to reach out to his rivals and focus forward, understanding that the difficult choices we face require unusual coalitions and public ownership.
Obama has selected a group of strong, independent, smart and passionate leaders for his senior White House staff and cabinet--not a shrinking violet among them! He has also created special czar-doms to guide and keep close to him the most urgent issues on his agenda--jobs and the economy, health care reform, energy/environment/global climate change, national security, and improving the performance of government. The obvious question is how is this going to work and will it lead to significant positive change?
If the recent past is prologue, we should all be very worried. The more optimistic view, which I choose, is that if the leadership qualities and principles we saw in the campaign can be systematically applied to governing (much harder!)--without the usual arrogance of the winning team--then we should not only cheer, but also positively pitch in, and make some tough choices of our own to help achieve tangible progress on a very difficult agenda.
This kind of leadership starts at the top and cascades down, with clear expectations and goals for each cabinet member, each White House staffer, each czar-dom or special team and on down through the political and career ranks of public servants. This sounds like common sense management but it seldom happens at the top of government. In the brief period between election and inauguration days, the race to vet and choose the top appointees and staff and for the team to learn the ropes--organizational, procedural and cultural--and the players, seems to preclude the individual and collective development of goals, performance measures and a process to ensure accountability.
Appointees in the Obama administration should be accountable not only for measurable progress on the president's substantive agenda, but also for ethical leadership, playing well with others on the team, building partnerships, practicing open government, engaging the public in a meaningful way, innovative use of communications technology, and bipartisan outreach in policy development and management.
This sort of goal-oriented discipline is more art then science, but measurement in each dimension is possible and regular communication about what's working, what's not and what needs to change is absolutely necessary for success. Leadership and accountability start at the top but if expectations are clear and consistent, the White House staff and top appointees would also hold each other accountable and apply these principles throughout their organizations and teams. They would act more like facilitators and integrators than czars.
The biggest danger for President Obama is insulation from voices and points of view outside of or not mediated by his leadership team or Washington insiders. Preventing this will also require a systematic approach--reaching out to listen to different points of views (even if he doesn't get his Blackberry), unscripted discussions with other leaders, town hall meetings to understand how ordinary people are thinking about challenges, inevitable trade-offs and tough choices.
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