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Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman

Thomas S. Bateman is the Bank of America Professor in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.

Is President Obama a 'transformational leader?'

Right out of the gate, Barack Obama inspired many with his historic rise to the presidency -- we all know he is a transformational figure on the world stage. But looked at more carefully, is he a transformational leader?

What is transformational leadership? First, let's consider what it's not. Laissez-faire leaders and maintenance managers don't do much other than try to keep their heads above water. Transactional leaders use authority, rewards, and punishments to get people to comply. George W. Bush applied these all tactics.

In contrast, transformational leaders spearhead change. They transform followers, organizations, institutions, or societies. President Obama's campaign and election had immediate symbolic impact in our country and across the globe, but his impact beyond the symbolic seems to have fallen short so far.

Is it helpful to judge him so early in his tenure? Probably not, but we can look at whether he is or isn't already using transformational processes that we know can generate the right results over time.

Transformational leaders have high aspirations and stimulate innovation. President Obama deserves credit for addressing big problems -- health care in particular -- that others have punted, but he has made strategic and tactical errors along the way. Most observers now agree the president should not have delegated health care to congressional leaders. He should have joined the fray more directly and personally; he was not an engaged leader on an enormous, complex issue that needed his personal involvement. He also failed to use the powers of his office to line up supporting votes.

Transformational leaders, when striving to achieve change, do not shy away from using all the weapons in their arsenal, including passionately articulating a compelling vision, stimulating productive dialogue, listening and attending to followers' needs, negotiating, and rewarding and punishing as appropriate.

One of the most important things transformational leaders do is to intellectually stimulate others -- both adversaries and supporters -- with the leader's ideas. Barack Obama delivers the goods on this important dimension of leadership, at least when he tries. For example, despite some charges of dawdling over Afghanistan, Robert Gates and others credit him with thoroughness and thoughtfulness as he challenged others to think harder about the options and their consequences. As columnist David Brooks wrote after watching the recent health-care summit, "The man really knows how to lead a discussion... he picked out the core point in any comment... Obama kept pressing them for areas of agreement... At the very end, the president summarized some possible points of agreement between the two parties, offered some concessions and asked Republicans to see if they could make some on their own."

This kind of intellectual stimulation is a trademark of transformational leaders. But we know successful change hinges on more than ideas: it also involves emotions. President Obama has periodically shown that he can stir the emotions, but with respect to health care he so far has not capitalized on his communication skills and has let opponents win the PR battles.

President Obama has sometimes demonstrated transformational abilities, but going forward he must deploy them more strategically and personally. If he re-injects them into his leadership repertoire on the most important issues, he will accomplish more, possibly much more.

Is President Obama a transformational leader? Not yet in terms of overall impact, but there's hope, for the country's sake, that the answer may turn to yes.

By Thomas S. Bateman

 |  March 8, 2010; 5:49 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Obama is fracturing the country along partisan fault lines in a way that is not only disturbing, but dangerous. The actions being taken by the Democrats are illustrative of the "tyranny of the majority" that the Constitution was designed to avoid. Unfortunately, every effort is being made to circumvent the precepts of that important document. I am suddenly fearful for the future of our country.

Posted by: clumpkin65 | March 11, 2010 12:42 PM
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fcrucian, you claim President Obama's total experience was as an organizer.

That's plain wrong. He served in both the state legislature in Illinois and the U.S. Senate. Compare that to President Bush' experience; he served as governor of Texas for fewer years than President Obama served in Illinois and Washington. Further, President Bush had *no* experience in Washington; if his Father's having been Number 41 counts as experience for Number 43, then Obama's private organizing experience has to count for something Obama, too. At least Obama's such experience was *direct,* not vicarious.

I don't understand why some people blithely ignore the demonstrable facts. When Bush was still President (plus a few times since he left office), I regularly defended him against detractors who tried to say his background as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard didn't count since those pilots go through a much shorter and easier flight school than do Air Force pilots, instead, according to those detractors, soloing in a Cessna or something then being labeled "jet fighter pilots" -- and that's simply not true. I don't know if he was a *good* pilot, a *bad* pilot, or a *so-so* pilot -- but he was a pilot,a fighter pilot, period. To argue about his training is the same as to argue that because I learned the multiplication tables in a private school, I learned something different than my peers learned in public schools.

I'm not saying don't disagree with Obama, nor to like him. If you don't agree -- fine; put forth your argument, with facts (preferably with facts, anyway). If you don't like him, as a person, as the President, or both -- fine; that's your right.

But leave fairy tales out of this sort of discussion, please.

Posted by: MekhongKurt1 | March 10, 2010 5:50 AM
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A fire is transformative. In the case of President Obama, his legacy may be that he's credited for igniting the conflagration that incinerated his party. It's not enough to be a big dreamer, or a well-wisher. To be transformative you must understand how economics works. This President doesn't. In 2010 the pendulum will swing. When it does the President's party will be transformed.

Posted by: jchenn | March 9, 2010 1:38 PM
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I'm so sick and tired of this stuff. The point??? There is none other than WaPo subtlely critizing Pres. Obama.

Posted by: rlj1 | March 9, 2010 10:53 AM
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Obama is no leader at all unless cheer leading qualifies. He reminds me of the motivational speakers many of us had to endure. After their "pitch" it was impossible to put their speeches into a set of "To Do Points" other than personal improvement and even harder to answer the question "What did he really say?". His total experience has been as an organizer. This is very apparent when he gets a group all riled up then leaves the details to "the locals". In this case "the locals" used the opportunity to set the wrong priorities (congress could have said we have an economics problem) and then to ram unpopular positions down the public's throats. I know no one who is against Healt Care Reform. I know many who are agains Health Care Finance reform and all the corrupt deals made to try to pass the legislation. Where are the leaders in the democratic party or are all of them just interested in staying in office?

Posted by: fcrucian | March 9, 2010 10:10 AM
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hey black people. This is how the liberal news democrats think of you. They just want your vote, then stay out of the way.


DAN RATHER: Part of the undertow in the coming election is going to be President Obama's leadership. And the Republicans will make a case and a lot of independents will buy this argument. "Listen he just hasn't been, look at the health care bill. It was his number one priority. It took him forever to get it through and he had to compromise it to death." And a version of, "Listen he's a nice person, he's very articulate" this is what's been used against him, "but he couldn't sell watermelons if it, you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic."

Read more: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/geoffrey-dickens/2010/03/08/dan-rather-articulate-obama-couldnt-even-sell-watermelons#ixzz0hfs9C5XX

Posted by: charlietuna666 | March 9, 2010 5:47 AM
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I am struck by the facts that most comments limit themselves to say YES Obama is transformational leader and NO he is not because the Republicans dont let him
be one. I shall try to go a little deeper.
Obama was elected because of his charisma,because he is black and because of
Hillary Clinton's arrorant posture. She did give him the presidency on a silver plate. For the young who tend to be more
romantically ideologist than pragmatic it
was Camelot ! But to govern is a lot tougher than to campaign in a democracy.At
the beginning of his mandate Obama was lucky because he had a 60 seats majority
in the Senate. But he run out of luck when
Massachussets voted Republican after Ted Kennedy's death. Obviously he has to deal
with the opposition of the Republicans. Let us not forget that politicians have a local electorate to attend to and also that
their consciences are often for sale.So the
road is tough. But I reckon he made it harder on himself by stubbornly trying to break the old deadlock on health care and put through his reform program. He lost a full year and neglected the main issue namely : Unemployment. That does not mean
however that he is not a transformational
President. The fat is that besides having made that big mistake he has a lot on his plate. Obama has two main challenges: Unemployment and foreign policy/security.
On unemployment he must reduce outsourcing,
cut tax benefits for U.S companies who invest abroad, garner the help of the banks to help finance the recovery and
he may have to raise taxes on the wealthy.
On all these fronts he will face opposition
from the Republicans and powerful lobbies.
On security and foreign policy: So far stalemate on all fronts. He nas to contend
with North Korea, find a way to have Iran
stop its Nuclear development program and last but not least solution the Palestinian problem. This issue is a tough
nut to crack because of Israel's intransigeance. But a lot is at stake here.
If he manages to have Israel accept the creation of a Palestinian state he will
undercut Jihad and its roots. The Islamic
manifesto wil fall on less ears. And the risk of an attack on the United Sates within the next 3 to 6 months which
according to security agencies ( heard at a
congressional hearing two weeks ago )is very high may disappear. But obviously time
may be runing out as well as Obama's luck.
So in my opinion Obama's foremost challenge is to bring Israel to accept the creation of a Palestinian state as quickly as possible. This has nothing to do with transformation by the way but it is
of the utmost urgency. So I dont think it is time to label Obama transformational or not. Let us give him time. The Presidency is an on the job learning act. It is not Camelot but if Obama is successful either
on unemployment or security/foreign policy
he may regain popularity.Obamania is dead.
But Obama is not.

Posted by: jeanpierregamet | March 8, 2010 9:41 PM
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I read both books, THE AUDACITY OF HOPE and OOPS, PEOPLE OF COLOR LIVE THERE.
President Obama does not have the full support of the Democratic party to transform anything. Soon most Democrats including his Black base will turn on him.

Posted by: Moley2 | March 8, 2010 9:13 PM
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Obama could help promote the cure of Marfan's Syndrome....I guess that his sealed medical records hide his condition? But he would be a big help to the Marfan's sufferer's if he would come out and announce how he can help promote a cure....

Posted by: Phil6 | March 8, 2010 8:35 PM
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Obama clearly has the transformational characteristics that you talked about. Despite his successful campaign, the philosopher who said "everyone wants progress, nobody wants change," was right. Change is hard to do.

He is basically a center-est, who was left to complete the financial bailout of the auto and financial industry started by Bush in his last months. Yet you have ignorant people taring him for this. Similarly, his health care reform is all done through the existing insurance companies, and is market driven, yet ignorant people have been told to think it is socialist and they should oppose it. This is a group of ignorant people, that even the GOP NRC knows should be lead by making them fearfull.

This is a terrible time for a trans formative, center-est leader. However, I believe that in the end he will be successful and prevail with the support of the Center.

Posted by: bill30 | March 8, 2010 4:48 PM
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don't look know but Obama lacks one of the most important traits of a leader:
Followers.

Discussion of Mr Obama's putative skills notwithstanding it appears to me that fewer and fewer people are willing to go along his route.

It is just a question of time before there are more "don't tread on me" bumper stickers than "Obama Biden" stickers.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | March 8, 2010 4:36 PM
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We're almost a third of the way through his term. Can we quit with the "is it too early" crap yet?

Posted by: charlesbakerharris | March 8, 2010 4:20 PM
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Yes Obama is transformational. All right, when you are reading this comment try a little experiment: Imagine any one else from the Democratic Party as president, imagine Obama never existed. Now imagine McCain as president. There isn't, in my view, anyone with the stature of Obama in either party or outside of it. Now it is up to the people to do the hard work of change..not just the "man on a white horse," it is up to us to follow through.

Posted by: hrayovac | March 8, 2010 4:15 PM
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Enough with the "transformational" lingo and all other essentially meaningless jargon to describe a man who is a big talker with little substance and virtually no experience for the position he holds. If he doesn't end up destroying the country, we can count our lucky stars. The only thing in his favor to this point is that he is better than Bush, but that really isn't a whole lot.

Posted by: Rehcab1 | March 8, 2010 3:44 PM
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He's nothing more than a failed community organizer.

Posted by: cschotta1 | March 8, 2010 2:55 PM
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Mr. Ombama was and is a very interesting and competent law school professor.
Not many law school professors, however, are good leaders, transformational or otherwise. They tend to like to hear themselves talk too much. I did my three years listening to law school professors. It's deja vu all over again.

Posted by: jfv123 | March 8, 2010 2:33 PM
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Barry (ACORN S.E.I.U.) Soetoro is a failure. The American pubic is not buying his South Chicago Smoke and Mirrors of Hoax & Charade. He has been rejected for the Fraud that he is.

Elections of 2010 & 12 Cannot Come Soon Enough !!

Posted by: jas7751 | March 8, 2010 1:56 PM
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it is so sad that you can all have an opinion as my grandfather once said opionoions are like a...holes we all have one.president obama is doing all he can to transform america in a positive way to save our young people a life of misery.he want young people to become involved in politics it is time for these old right-wingers to step back and bring new ideas into america.you all said the civil right marches would not work but they did.they said womens rights were at the wrong time but women make up a huge chunk of the workforce and ceos.we need to stop living in the dark-ages in this country.this is why when president obama speak he always go to colleges to speak to the young because they are the future.we also need to acknowledge that polling is done amongst older americans because they think the young dont vote in most elections but we were fooled in the presidential elections and it will happen again.

Posted by: adolphusc | March 8, 2010 1:53 PM
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Obama has a long history of mailing it in. He did it Illinois voting presant, he wouldn't even show up for US Senate hearings and on the rare occasion he did he was late.

Obama got elected because the country was tired of George Bush and because people wanted to vote for the countries first Black candidate. No one looked into his past record or lack there of and he is doing the same mail it in job as president.

Posted by: robtr | March 8, 2010 12:24 PM
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It's too early to be having this discussion. We won't know the effects of his policies until they've had time to be implemented. Wait 50 years and we'll have a better idea. If America lasts that long.

Posted by: sasmontagova | March 8, 2010 12:24 PM
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Obama does not lead discussions. He sits and waits until the other person has finished speaking and then just says what he has said previously, perhaps in different wording, but obviously has not taken on board anybody else's ideas. It wasn't until the election of Brown in Mass that he added so-called "Republican" ideas to the health care "reform" plan and that wasn't to compromise with Republicans. It was to goad some moderate Democrats into going along with his plan.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | March 8, 2010 12:18 PM
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Obama doesn't lead discussions. He sits and waits until the other person has finished speaking and then repeats whatever he said previously (perhaps in a different wording, but still the same), obviously not having taken on board anything said by anyone else. It wasn't until the election of Brown in Mass that he would even admit that he heard the so-called "Republican" ideas and added them to the health care "reform" plan to try and goad some moderate Democrats into coming on board.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | March 8, 2010 12:14 PM
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Obama has always been able to be a blank slate that people can put on what they want- he ran a campaign with minimal substance and maximal slogans to win the Dem nomination. The left thought he was their man despite no record of ambitious progressive policy in the Ill or in the senate and less left policies on healthcare, NAFTA, the housing crisis, energy, or other major issues than his rivals. He allows people to believe he is what they want him to be.

He has an enormous ego and has ambitions to be a historic president, but his first year was by no means along that road. Any Democrat would have done a stimulus bill. Hillary had proposed a 150 billion dollar one over one year before the markets crashed in 9/08. However, to get votes, he allowed 40% of this stimulus to be tax cuts, which have been demonstrated not to help the economy repeatedly. He went for a top-down approach to bank-bailouts with little new regulation (most of the other Dems had looked for bottom-up- which he opposed during the primaries- forcing a freeze and renegotiations of housing loans), his trade policy is to the right of Bill Clinton's, he started negotiations on health care by giving up single payer immediately, which is like starting negotiations for the price of a new car by giving your target price- there was no wiggle room, so he gave up public option, taking away the anti-trust exemption from insurance companies, full coverage (18 millionn not covered by bill), etc. The way this health bill runs- it will reduce costs to most consumers, but will create a huge increase in costs. The real problem, fee-for-service is not addressed. Fee for service is one of the main reasons Medicare is such a costly proposition- Johnson had originally thought of Medicare/Medicaid as the smaller part of health care reform, he had intended community health centers to be the main focus- the AMA and insurance companies pushed for this, seeing larger profits- since 1965- healthcare has gone from 4-5% of our economy to 16%. Big pharma, the AMA and insurance companies have made out like bandits, and probably will again with this plan.

The point is, a transformational leader produces "change" and "hope" and doesn't just use these words to get elected.

Posted by: NYClefty | March 8, 2010 11:21 AM
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The greatest blessing that could be bestowed upon America would be for Obama's total Socialist agenda to collapse on its own demerit. Only then will our economy , relieved of the Marxist millstone, rebound and once again bear the fruits of the most vibrant free-enterprise system in the history of mankind. Greg Neubeck

Posted by: gneubeck | March 8, 2010 10:50 AM
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The author ends his article with an ineresting question however he draws the wrong conclusion.. Obama has never been, can never be and will never be any kind of leader at all except to the left hand fringe. This group, as we know, only represent @20% of Americans. America is a slightly right on center country politically, there is no doubt abot this point. Obama is not OF the group BY this group or For this group.

Posted by: Obamasnotyamama | March 8, 2010 10:35 AM
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Oh, and I forgot to add that: I rest my case. Just read some of the addled commentary on these offensive blogs. They all seem to be dominated by know-nothing nihilists who do not want any government at all. Most of their commentary amounts to wheezy, foul personal insults against a man whose shoe tops none of them could rise above, who cannot seem to string together a complete sentence without including a goblolley of pathetically silly conspiracy theories, who mostly get their "education" from bloatey, swilly, rich old fat talk show hosts who pander to their over-the-top fantasies and who do a great deal of talking but do not have a fraction of the courage Mr. Obama has.

Indeed, the proof of the utter lack of moral fiver and intellectual bankruptcy on the right comes from this reality that none of them seems to recognize that President Obama's worst critics are brain dead slugs like Beck and Limbaugh who love to talk about values and principles but lack the fortitude to actually do anything other than stand on the sidelines and throw balls of feces at those who actually fight in the arena like Mr. Obama.

I have no use for this silly, craven, stinking, squalid swarm of cockroaches.

Posted by: jaxas70 | March 8, 2010 10:07 AM
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President Obama is a transformational leader. The problem is not with him so much as it is with our own national character. Past generations who have endured far more dangerous and unstable events reacted a great deal more stoically than this generation does. Part of the reason is the rise of a cynical media that obsesses not on civil debate and dialogue but on angry, vicious shouts and insults.

Our great transformational leaders in the past were successful at transforming society for the better because they were representative of a national character of the people themselves. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, LBJ and Reagan matched the national character of the voters who elected them. It appears that Obama was elected by a people who seem to want instant, simplistic solutions to complex problems. This generation could never have launched the Progressive Era, laid the framework for a United Nations, overcome the Depression, prevailed as victor in WWII, supported an Interstate Highway system, gone to the Moon, enacted broad Civil Rights legislation, or ended the Cold War without destroying the entire planet.

Indeed, I have my doubts whether any President could overcome this generation of lazy, pedestrian, self-indulgent boomers and carping, narcissistic ideologues who's idea of transformation is having a system of government that doesn't so much of anything other than shovel truckloads of taxpayer money back into wealthy investor's pockets or corrupt banking and lending institutions while they while away their leisure time watching dumbed down reality shows and listening to dumbed down talk radio all day.

Posted by: jaxas70 | March 8, 2010 9:55 AM
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When you get right down to the nitty gritty, he comes out as another politician from the corrupt Chicago politician good old boys club.
Is he intelligent? YES.
Is he a "leader"? NO!
In another ten years, maybe!

Posted by: SeniorVet | March 8, 2010 9:37 AM
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President Obama is an intelligent man, but too inexperienced to run the Presidency. Washington is a very complex place and what ever he said in the campaign is haunting him and as a thin skinned person, he seems to be caught in doing what he said during the campaign rather than what is right for America. He is also very arrogant and bent upon doing things that he wants rather than what America wants. It is these areas he is struggling and when the poll numbers go down, the politicians will start running away from him because of selfish reasons. The country needs leaders to do what America wants and not what they want. It is something lost in this century. American can never lose capitalism and Obama is trying to change that since he believes he is right. Americans are fed up with health care issue now since they are more worried about their jobs and bloated federal deficit. At this time, it is wise for the President to look at America in a small scope and allow the industry to hire employees and not keep increasing federal employees. The country cannot survive if government spends more money on federal employees than the industry. He needs better advisers than what he has right now and he needs to humble himself and start rethinking for America.

Posted by: dr_vaman | March 8, 2010 8:34 AM
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Obama is like a wonderful facade appealing to a large number of people who like to look at and hear nice things. Only problem is, the inside of the facade is vacant of history and lacking any real sense of patriotism.

Posted by: GordonShumway | March 8, 2010 8:15 AM
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Obama wants to be a transformational President.What does he want to transform America into is the question you should be asking.Twenty years in "Rev." Wrights church , Bill Ayers and an Unconstitutional health-care bill,the takeover of Banks ,and Automoible companies global warming farce comes to mind .

Posted by: Imarkex | March 8, 2010 7:48 AM
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