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Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

The overcomer: Barack Obama

Question: Considering all spheres of endeavor, who would you nominate as Leader of the Year in 2010? Why?

It is tempting to pick Alan Mulally or Sam Palmisano as leaders of the year. As other American auto companies stumbled, Mulally led the Ford Motor Company to profitability and modeled a more open culture, different from the company I consulted to in the 1990s where anxious managers viewed each other as enemies and executives focused their energies on buying companies rather than improving product. Palmisano has forged IBM into the prototype global knowledge company, transforming a cumbersome bureaucracy into collaborative networks of experts from different disciplines who work interactively with business customers.

Both leaders have the advantage of followers who are paid to jump at their commands. Both have gained universal applause for their leadership. Not so for the leader I believe has achieved the most against strong resistance: Barack Obama. My reason for choosing him as leader of the year is that he, more than anyone else, has guided, pushed and often persuaded skeptical and independent legislators to craft laws that move America forward.

The press generally writes or talks about Obama's leadership in terms of winning and losing, political victories or defeats. Historians will doubtless report these scores, but they will evaluate Obama in terms of how well he served the American people. In his campaign for the nomination and presidency, Obama spoke of four main goals, which to some degree were interrelated. One was to strengthen America to compete successfully in global markets. This required improving education, investing in science, developing clean energy, providing universal broadband high-speed Internet access and, in general, upgrading national infrastructure. The second, to provide all Americans with health care, was to be paid for by increasing taxes on the rich. The third was to end the war in Iraq and the threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The fourth was the promise to make politics in Washington less adversarial.

Obama took on a heavy challenge, with goals requiring support from Congress. As he entered office with the financial system collapsing, GM on the verge of bankruptcy and millions of Americans losing jobs, his challenges began to look like the labors of Hercules. Only this Hercules had an organized opposition dedicated to his failure. There would be no new era of collaboration in Washington. Republicans did not agree with his domestic policies, especially universal health care, and they had the support of many Americans. As he worked to corral support from the Democratic majority in Congress, he faced followers pushing him to the left--demanding a public option to compete with private health insurers, a larger government stimulus to create jobs and other demands that hardened opposition from the right--and a center that was skeptical of big government.

Obama, a pragmatist with goals he believed essential for a stronger and more decent society, faced opposition based on interests and ideology. The interests are well known and based on rational motives for money and power. The ideologies of the extremes are less rational. Despite evidence that good government (especially effective regulation to prevent financial and environmental disasters) benefits the nation, the far right believes market forces and individual initiative will solve all problems. And despite evidence that a majority of Americans don't like government taking their money and giving it to people they consider undeserving, the far left believes that Obama would gain support by being more of a Robin Hood. Americans can be very generous to those they know are suffering through no fault of their own, such as the disabled and victims of disasters. But 68 percent of Americans, a higher percentage than any other advanced industrial society, believe that success in life is determined only by individual effort. Voters opposing health-care legislation have said they do not want their hard-earned money taxed for the benefit of people who haven't worked hard enough to afford health insurance.

With a new, more conservative Congress, Obama's challenges will become even greater. To sustain his gains and make any progress, he will need to be more effective in explaining his goals and persuading Americans they will benefit from his policies. Rather than attacking people with extreme ideologies, he will strengthen his credibility by patiently describing why he disagrees with their thinking. At the same time, he should show that he is listening and responding to those Americans who share his aims for building America but who question his policies, especially in this observer's view, concerning the need to control the costs of health care and to end the war in Afghanistan.

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By Michael Maccoby

 |  December 22, 2010; 4:02 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Economic crisis , Government leadership , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I'm sorry, but Barack Obama is not a leader. He is a follower. He has not restored our reputation internationally, he has cowtowed and given in to other international leaders to a degree that it only appears they are working with us, but rather they now see this as the time to strike and take what they can from the US while there is such an easy mark in the White House. The healthcare situation is another example of him following the wrong voices and just plowing ahead on an initiative that benefits mainly the downtrodden minority, although I do agree some revamping of the system was necessary to help those really in need. All because, just like with most every other major issue of the day, he promised what people wanted to hear, rather than actually studying the repercussions his actions might have in the real world, rather than his dream world. His healthcare plan has also virtually eliminated the possibility of the unemployment rate to decrease because no small, mid-level and large corporations can afford to hire because of the astronomical costs this healthcare plan is costing these companies. They are decreasing their benefits packages to their current employees, which works smack against the concepts of his new healthcare system, which leaves the economy and the country in a continuous "do loop" of counterproductivity. He has given away classified defensive weaponry technologies just so he can say he's made progress in building relationships with the Russians, again highlighting he has no experience in any military or intel-related matters, making him one of the most potentially dangerous security risks this country has ever seen. A leader can demonstrate a record of accomplishment. Barack Obama has no such record other than fooling the gullibles of this nation into believing everything they heard from him in his campaign. Now that he's in office he's a deer in headlights basically just trying to cover up his inexperience which has resulted in him multiplying his mistakes. If Mr. Maccoby considers Mr. Obama a great leader, the rest of his book has no credibility, in my book.

Posted by: AsstGM | December 30, 2010 2:59 PM
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President Obama has been surrounded by junk-yard dogs from both parties, and tried by fire. Yet he persevered against all odds with a sense of purpose of what was right for our country long term. Thus President Obama became THE leader of the free world regardless of political detractors. Is this not the meaning of leadership?

Posted by: momshugs | December 27, 2010 4:06 PM
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"With a new, more conservative Congress, Obama's challenges will become even greater. To sustain his gains and make any progress, he will need to be more effective in explaining his goals and persuading Americans they will benefit from his policies. Rather than attacking people with extreme ideologies, he will strengthen his credibility by patiently describing why he disagrees with their thinking"

Obama more effective in explaining his goals? That guy has been on a nonstop "explaining" tour. Its been explained, it has been rejected. The only one who needs explaining now is Obama. If he didn't get the message in Nov. 2010, he is deaf and dumb.
Extreme ideologies? You mean all those Republicans and Independants who don't agree with Obama's leadership and the direction he is going?
One and done.
And btw his "accomplishments" were enacted because he used his stooges Pelosi and gReid to bribe members of his own party to vote for this health scam. Of course the unions got special deals too to opt out of the "progrom".
I know hundreds of people who will have to cancel health coverage because of Obamacare in 2011. And where is the so called "safety" net for them? That's coming in 2014 you say? Wow who would have known!

Posted by: vickie1 | December 27, 2010 3:38 PM
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And how about the Nobel Prize the annointed one won. Just like this nobel prize.. Obama has been a leader alright, leading us off a cliff with the D in drive. Luckily the voters saw the D..estruction the Obama Leadership was taking us.. and R..eversed course. Now let's see this one term president try to continue his destruction for two more years. Going in D, when the country is going in R, is hardly a good quality of a leader.
Obama isn't leading anymore, the people voted in the "enemies" so that Obama can be dragged kicking and screaming in the right direction.

Posted by: vickie1 | December 27, 2010 2:57 PM
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It is interesting that in this series of comments, the two comments who take issue with President Obama are the two that offer the least coherent comments or arguments. FRANKLINONE makes the kind of taunt that you would expect on the playground or in the bravado of a bar-room argument--it tries to humiliate and denigrate without having to do the actual work of making an argument. This is an all too common mode in blog comments, but it does nothing for our political discourse. JAYRKAY, on the other hand, seems to want to make an argument; but besides conveying a general tone, it loses any impact because it moves between general claims (which aren't tied directly to Obama, as a substantive argument would need to be) to subjective claims ("USA worst enemy") to some statements of his own political beliefs (again--how are these tied to President Obama?) and to some sentiments that are hard to interpret at all as they get lost in the mish-mash of fragmented thoughts.

So at this point, we don't yet have a real debate going on here. As several commenter’s and Mr. Maccoby have suggested, President Obama has chosen to be pragmatic in order to pass those portions of his agenda that could be passed given the nature of the opposition mounted against him. I tend to applaud this sort of leadership because it doesn't make the perfect (what is ideologically "right" or ideal from some political position) the enemy of the good (what can be passed, what can advance the good of the whole, what can open the door for later, more complete reforms). I would, however, be interested in someone making an articulate argument that a more staunch idealism--though less likely to achieve its aims, is in some way more to be desired than pragmatism. That would be a debate worth having. I'd also love an actual debate about particular policies (though this forum on leadership doesn't seem to be the right venue for it). Unfortunately, such discussions usually degenerate into ideological declarations of faith (or worse--just name calling) instead of actual argumentation. So for now, I'd love to hear an argument that challenges what has been represented here as President Obama's style of leadership (generally pragmatic).

Posted by: daviestad | December 27, 2010 1:02 AM
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Leadership wishy washy. Jobless remain the same and misery index 10 out of ten.Health care will become expensive for the services we get.Economy still in doldrums.Foreign Policy,USA the worst enemy. Middle east a greater threat.Pakistan will become our 51st,Afganistan and Iraq, pain in the Neck.The next Congress has no business to act in 2011. Our troops should come back now, not in 2014.
The only Glimmer of Hope, Economy. Housing Market, not perky.
Target: Fed should stop meddling,expanding Socialism must come to a stop. Let the people decide their future.DreamAct must die, illegals must be exported to Afganistan-wish list.Reverse course-Increase Private enterprise-Economy may survive. The Dead Beat Obama clueless.
Individual Responsibility-main arena.Global Warming Changing to Global Cooling. Green Movemnt a farce,America has an insatiable appetite for Energy. China will take over Manufacturing.
Education policy will eat more money with affirmative action.
We have to live on HOPE, that sums it up. Travel is a Nightmare.Appeasement must stop or mass conversion to Islam-then we will have ONE NATION under Middle-east- a single Global Authority.

Posted by: jayrkay | December 26, 2010 1:24 PM
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From an international perspective, president Obama personifies all the characteristics of a great leader. In the two years of his presidency, he has successfully managed to restore America’s reputation as the world leader after the extensive damage that was done during the Bush presidency. He changed the attitudes of the international public opinions from viewing America as a cynical self-centered empire to land of freedom and opportunity that we know and respect. I wish him all the success in the remainder of his presidency and I vote him Leader of the Year.

Posted by: drn123 | December 26, 2010 7:22 AM
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I think Obama wins hands down (followed by Pelosi). When you consider the pressure he's up against and the magnitude of challenges he's faced from the very beginning (and continues to face), he accomplished a lot, all with a very powerful and determined opposition Party, along with a loud and omnipresent right wing media trying their hardest to "bring him down". Kudos to our president for his calm, intelligence, sanity, grace, and even handedness in guiding this country through some extremely difficult times. Obama is playing a three dimensional chess game while the GOP plays chess. At the end of the day, it is the GOP who look ignorant, petty and petulant.

Posted by: ggwalt | December 25, 2010 9:14 AM
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Well, I'm not sure I'd put him at the top this year. But I agree, he has shown an ability to overcome the adversity of the times. From a non-political point of view, this characteristic is needed in these times - which are tough for most people. Having people in leadership that demonstrate the capacity to overcome is a quality that we all need to see.

Posted by: jimhazelwood | December 24, 2010 6:00 PM
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Obama??? Laughing so hard it hurts.......

Posted by: franklinone | December 24, 2010 10:27 AM
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Leadership is doing the right thing at the right time without regard to consequences. The President has done this a number of times since becoming President. Examples include Healthcare, stimulus, auto industry bailout, the tax break compromise, don't-ask, 9/11 first responders, and a whole lot more. He has made the right mad, the left mad, and the middle mad but in the slope of history he will be seen as a person who did the right thing at the right time.

Posted by: AZdave | December 24, 2010 7:28 AM
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I think that health care reform is a great idea. I have type 1 diabetes and for me to get insurance, it was a nightmare until I found "Wise Health Insurance" search for them online and you can get affordable health insurance instantly.

Posted by: daleleblanc | December 23, 2010 12:49 AM
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