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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Reality Therapy

Just for fun, let's talk about Barack Obama's dramatic weaknesses as a leader.
What? You thought he didn't have any? Come on! Let's try a little reality therapy before we go all giddy on the 20th!

The fact is, his opponents in both the primary and the general elections did a reasonable job of telling us what his shortcomings are. The fact that he did a more than reasonable job of overcoming, disguising, and controlling his weaknesses is one of the reasons he'll be putting his hand on the Bible on January 20th. But when -- and it is when, not if - -his weaknesses lead his administration into errors and even failures, we won't be able to say we weren't warned, any more than George W. Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity should have come as a shock to any of us after he became president; when he was a candidate, it was one of the things that made him seem so likable.

In fact, it is that flip that is the nature of electoral politics. As the Chinese remind us, "The other side has another side." Which, in the case of presidential candidates, means that a candidate's strengths are also the candidate's weaknesses: semantic differential, the pollsters call it -- someone who is "sure of himself, confident in his own knowledge" may also be "willfully uncurious, unwilling to listen to other points of view, and stubborn." It all depends on how you look at it.

So what did his opponents say about President-elect Obama during the campaigns? That he's aloof. Cerebral. Great at giving a speech, but short on hands-on experience. Cold as ice, with no real human inside that suit. That he lives up in his head, which makes him susceptible to thinking he can think his way out of every problem. That his education and his own brains make him more of an elitist than a man of the people, a leader who feels comfortable when surrounded by "the best and the brightest" -- which, by the way, wasn't a compliment when applied to the Kennedy team.

Now to his credit, Candidate Obama was able to turn these charges around: Smart, not cerebral -- and aren't we ready for a president who can pronounce "nuclear" and likes ideas? Short on experience -- but unsullied by Washington, D.C.'s nasty ways. Cool, not cold, as in no-drama-Obama. Not an elitist at all, but a man who knows what the ordinary American is going through.

Fair enough, good answers, all. But the fact that the Obama campaign could turn the semantic game on its head doesn't make the original charges wrong. Just look at his cabinet.

It was praised as a "team of rivals" -- but most commentators who took that tack forget that "team of rivals" is a book, not a prescription on how to run a government. Just because Doris Kearns Goodwin could come up with an organizing theme, post-hoc, to describe Lincoln's managerial genius doesn't make it a handbook for running the Obama administration. How do we know that the "team of rivals" won't turn out to be a "ship of fools"? Look at the credentials in the Obama White House. How many of his picks ever served in the military? How many have ever started a business? Or run a business? This is an administration crammed full of McKinsey & Co. alums, really smart people who can produce killer PowerPoints and terrific option memos. They went to Harvard and Yale and Chicago and Stanford; some of them are so well educated, it seems like they went to all of them. Does that make them good picks?

My old friend and mentor, Larry Smith, who served as counselor to the Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, and hails from a small town in Indiana, always told me, "Knowin' it ain't the same as doin' it." President-elect Obama has a lot of knowers; we'll find out how many doers he's got over the next four years.
Does the man have strengths? You bet! Does he have weaknesses? The same answer applies, because many of them are the same qualities, turned upside down.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  January 13, 2009; 10:34 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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We'll pay for this highly educated but naive new President. Just hope the cost is not too high. Kennedy was about the same, only he had wartime service. He brought ud the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile crisis and Vietnam.

Posted by: delusional1 | January 13, 2009 7:37 PM
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Thoroughly enjoyed this one. While a supporter, these were the same issues that dissuaded me from chugging down the kool-aid like everyone else. His cabinet is not as impressive or out-the-box as anyone on the left should have hoped. Hate to say it but where is the "change" that was supposed to be coming. Hillary was a rather sloppy choice to head a new wave of foreign policy.

Posted by: bosa_18 | January 13, 2009 3:20 PM
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