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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Steven Pearlstein
Journalist

Steven Pearlstein

Steve Pearlstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist for The Washington Post and co-host of washingtonpost.com's "On Leadership" forum.

A Stroke of Leadership Genius

This was a brilliant stroke by Obama that demonstrates once again how remarkable his leadership instincts are.

In hindsight, it became apparent that he'd made a big mistake interjecting himself into the controversy without knowing all of the facts. The comments wound up turning what had been a passing summer brouhaha into political firestorm that hurt him politically and diverted attention from his priority issue of health care.

Think about what would have probably happened if the same mistake had been made by the head of a big corporation or a national movement. I suspect the first instinct of the leader and the people immediately around him would be to try to justify the comment and defend the point of view. That's the natural instinct of anyone who thinks he's in charge and feels the need to prove it. If you wind up losing on something like that, or admitting you had made a mistake, it could well be taken as a sign of weakness. Better to hold your ground, the argument would be, solidify your base of support among those who agree with you and hope the whole thing passes before too long.

But Obama saw in it the potential to demonstrate other qualities that people also value just as much as toughness and steadfastness in a leader. Willingness to admit error is one. But surely another is having enough confidence in himself that he could resolve and defuse the controversy, and enough confidence in the public that they could summon their better nature and rise above the talk-show shouting. And it turned out that those are leadership qualities that people really respond to.

I suspect a lot of leaders would never have even entertained the idea of getting the two guys together because they would have been afraid at what might happen -- that it would have been a closely watched event over which they had little control. Most leaders and the people around them hate that kind of situation. Obama was clever enough to figure out that, just by setting up the White House meeting, he could cool things down and get the controversy moved to a setting in which the professor and the officer would be on their best behavior and rise to the occasion.

Like most of us, leaders don't seek out situations in which they are expected to deal directly with people who are in conflict. Those are things that you assign to staff to work out, with the understanding that if it can be resolved, the leader can swoop in and take credit. But Obama has a wonderful sense of when delegating that role to others is a mistake, when the potential upsides of his own involvement outweigh the downsides.

Just holding the discussion over beer, outside in the garden, with just the three of them plus Biden, was a stroke of genius. It immediately took some of the edge off the meeting, and reinforced the image that Obama has carefully cultivated as an unpretentious, ordinary guy. He tried to put the others at ease by taking off his suit coat and rolling up his sleeves. And who better than to invite to a conversation among three other people who probably said things they wished they hadn't said than Mr. Foot-in-Mouth himself, vice president Joe Biden?

Those of us of a certain age remember that Richard Nixon got up before dawn, hopped into his limousine and went out to the Lincoln Memorial to talk to some of the hundreds of thousands of young activists who had assembled in Washington for a big demonstration against the war in Vietnam.

I don't know if the gesture was heartfelt, or merely a PR stunt, but I do know that it was a big plus at the time for Nixon's stature as a leader in the eyes of a lot of Americans. Particularly in times of stress, people like it when they see leaders getting out of their defensive crouches, and getting out of their bunkers, and just talking with people they don't agree with and may not even like them. Rather than a sign of weakness, it is taken by followers as a sign of strength.


By Steven Pearlstein

 |  August 3, 2009; 11:32 AM ET
Category:  Making mistakes Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Atten: Mr. Pearlstine. Re: Your thoughtful column on the President's error.

The four of them at the beer meeting should have had more than one beer. Four and they would have started harmonizing "From the tables down at Morey's,to the place where Louis dwells",
and they would have all become fast friends,
keeping in touch with each other the rest of their lives.
Cyrano loves that harmony.

Posted by: Cyrano | August 5, 2009 8:22 PM
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Atten: Mr. Pearlstine. Re: Your column on the President's entering a controversity
between a policeman doing his duty and a college professor displaying his self importance. It is evident that the President should have kept out of the dilemma, and he would not have had to display a non-sensible beer-meeting.Oh well! We're all allowed to make an error, once in a while. We expected more of the President.Signed: Cyrano.

Posted by: Cyrano | August 5, 2009 2:46 PM
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And yet, Sgt. Lashley is still being called an Uncle Tom on Black radio stations, and Professor Gates's daughter writes articles ridiculing Crowley's daughter for wearing too much eyeliner.

Not everything is about saving Obama's bacon.

Due respect.

Posted by: auntmo9990 | August 5, 2009 7:25 AM
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The lesson we learned here is how to apologize without apologizing.

This episode could be labeled "a tale of three egos".

On one hand we have the Harvard professor who is clearly on an ego trip, and a police officer who could have overlooked the professor's ego trip. The professor obviously saw himself as a rock star, and the police officer didn't give him the special treatment he expected.

In sharp contrast, we have Obama, who is cool as a cucumber. He clearly made a huge PR blunder by saying the police acted 'stupidly', when it is well within their scope to arrest someone who is being caustic. He never apologized, but somehow got credit for an apology, and came off looking like a pro. Brilliant.

Posted by: postfan1 | August 5, 2009 5:45 AM
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The last time I checked, arresting someone at his home for standing up for his civil rights was not in the job description of the police. The police are there to PROTECT and SERVE the people (not their egos). Gates posed no threat whatsoever. Once his identity was established, the matter was over for the police. The police should have apologized and high-tailed it out of there. There is no way that if a white professor like Larry Summers had behaved in a similar fashion would he have been arrested.

Obama directly stated that he didn't have all the facts and that he was friends with Mr. Gates. However, Obama didn't side with his friend because he's black - he sided with his friend because the GUY IS HIS FRIEND. Anyone whose natural inclination is to not side with a friend against authority has no place being called a friend.

Furthermore, he stated that the ACTIONS of the Cambridge police were stupid. If you confuse "stupid actions" with actually being stupid, you need a remedial english class.

Posted by: hmfmcg | August 4, 2009 4:14 PM
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The mistake the president admitted to was jumping into the controversy. He didn't apologize for the substance of his remarks, possibly because he was correct. Something which, as a former professor of constitutional law, he probably knew. Arresting someone on his front porch for alleging racial bias by the police is not only stupid behavior, but illegal behavior in the state of Massachusetts. (Compare and contrast with arresting someone alleging racial bias by the police, while standing on a Compton street corner ten minutes after the Rodney King verdict. See the difference? THAT constitutes disorderly conduct.)

Sorry to get all technical about it, guys, but that's the truth of the matter, whatever the color, economic status, potty mouths or grievances of the two main characters.

Posted by: krasni | August 4, 2009 1:49 PM
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I'll even go farther to suggest Obama knew he was stuck between a rock and a hard place when the question was asked. So, he threw a bone to his liberal constituency this time, knowing that he'd have to take it back...but that would work out OK.

Here's how it works. He calls the police stupid. Public sentiment calls for him to take it back. He does (or comes up with an equivocation like "calibrate") but his constituency knows he had to take it back. Therefore he got to say what he really wanted, his constituency hears and still thinks "stupidly" while he can falsely backtrack.

Kinda like when Hillary was talking about "The vast right wing conspiracy" which was as planned as a statement could be. The idea was to get the phrase out into the public, and hope it resonates. Then she could say maybe that was a little bit excessive, but only after the idea had been introduced.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | August 4, 2009 1:48 PM
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While it is commendable that he attempted to correct the situation instead of becoming defensive about it, as others have pointed out, he never explicitly said, "I made a mistake," or "I'm sorry."

Actions do speak louder than words, it's true. That does not mean however, that words are not necessary.

Posted by: legendarypunk | August 4, 2009 12:40 PM
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GC4Life - I think what the President did was critize a policeman for doing his job without the facts and relied on his history with the Professor - he made an assumption based on the color of the policeman and assumed the innocence of his friend because of his color. That is racist in any corner of this planet and would NOT be tolerated by anyone else - but this was the President and so the media let him recalibrate his words over a beer. the police absolutely have a right to investigate and have an absolutel right to respect and when told to be quite, that is what any good citizen should/would do. Why didn't the Professor do that? Why aren't people outraged that the woamn who called in the 911 report and then got vilified and had threats made against her claiming she had been racists when in fact she had not mentioned color. I think the more you know, the more you would have to be outraged! I am.

Posted by: taffien | August 4, 2009 11:54 AM
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I don't think Obama ever apologized and "recalibrating" a comment is NOT an apology. As the Leader of the Free World, he owed all of us BETTER THAN THAT - and those that accepted it demeaned yourselves for not expecting better than that. Obama critized Bush repeatidly for not owning up to his mistakes and promised to do better...so I guess the question is WHEN!?

Posted by: taffien | August 4, 2009 11:46 AM
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I was cable-channel-flipping last evening and was amazed to see how hard the right-wing bloviators were working to keep this alive. Obama cleans up his own messes -- something the Bush administration never did.

Watch Sean Hannity some dull evening. He's complaining about Cash for Clunkers, the healthcare proposal, and the deficit (I like the image of the GOP driving the car into the ditch and then grousing about the cost of the tow truck). My concern when Obama was elected was that we finally had a real President and it might be too late. I'm a lot less concerned about that now.

By the way, I couldn't help noticing Bill O'Reilly insisting the Lou Dobbs was keeping the 'birther' story going simply because CNN's rating were terrible. As if that was a valid excuse...

Posted by: Samson151 | August 4, 2009 10:52 AM
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What was so bad about what the president said? From a civil liberties perspective, a police officer is stupid for coming into your home, finding out you are the lawful resident of the home and then arresting you because you are complaining about his actions. Gates did not threaten Crowley and is allowed to say what he likes according to our first ammendment. Gates said no curse words for that matter and the police report has been shown to have an innacuracy about what the 911 caller told Crowley. So what else is innacurate about the report? Did Crowley show his identification? According to the other police officer's report there is no mention of this action. It doesn't matter what race you are. Your home and civil rights take presedent over any cop's ego. Police are there to protect and serve, not to punish and enslave.

Posted by: GC4Life | August 4, 2009 10:43 AM
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I also missed the part where President Obama admitted his mistake. Oh yes, his words were "miscalculated". He is just another politician like all the others.

Posted by: jack71 | August 4, 2009 8:46 AM
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SmittyATL nailed it. I don't think I missed it, I have read and watched a lot of coverage, for the life of me I can't remember Obama saying "sorry" or "mistake". He did do his usual "Had I spoken more carefully and selected words that better pandered to the masses.." lawyerly explanation.

Hey, that is another reason we are continuing the Bush years. He can't admit a mistake either!

Posted by: mgochs | August 4, 2009 8:25 AM
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Hmmm... the President admitted his mistake??? I must have missed that one.

Posted by: SmittyATL | August 4, 2009 5:48 AM
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It took Mr. Obama a few minutes to realize he made the same mistake the two principals did - acting before thinking. My guess is if they had just one beer, they kept the discussion polite and perhaps insightful. If they had three or more, they put their arms around each other and said, "Boy did we f**k up...and who's driving?"

Posted by: bob16 | August 4, 2009 12:35 AM
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So in the view of these panelists what was "teachable" about this incident then, is how President Obama recognized the "big mistake" he had made by "interjecting himself into the controversy without knowing all of the facts" and the skill with which he has, hopefully, extricated himself from it all?

I have lived in this country since the mid-1980s, and nothing amazes me more than the myopic attitude everyone adopts when it come to dealing with issues that involve individuals of different races. What about a discussion of what actually happened?

Posted by: ZnanaB | August 3, 2009 7:20 PM
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The President's "Recovery?" He has not recovered. I take exception to the Post's headline reporting that he President has recovered from this big mistake.
I don't believe that the beer get-together ended or took the edge off this matter, and he'll be needled about it for all time unless he makes a sincere apology.

Posted by: kls1 | August 3, 2009 6:40 PM
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People are getting out of their clunkers too. The problem now is that ... Pick one.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 3, 2009 3:14 PM
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