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A brain trust for President Obama?

What was idle chatter earlier this week about a shakeup in Obama's ranks has risen to shouting levels now that the mayor's job in Chicago is up for grabs and the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, could run for it.

In today's Post, Karen Tumulty examines what a wider shakeup of Obama's staff could mean, especially with the midterm elections so close. Her article reminds us that such a reorganization is not uncommon two years into a presidency, when staffers are burned out and ready to return to their families. She looks back at the changes President Clinton made to his advisers in 1994, when Democrats lost control of the House, as they are widely expected to do in November.

Clinton reconnected with his old political adviser Dick Morris, reorienting his strategy toward making more deals with Republicans, a move that helped to save his presidency. But he also went so far, Tumulty reminds us, as to bring three motivational gurus to Camp David--Anthony Robbins, Marianne Williamson and Steven R. Covey. All three are authors and inspirational speakers plying the secrets to achievement, spirituality and effectiveness; two of them have practically become caricatures of the genre.

That was 1994, of course, and that was the Clintons. The chances of Obama summoning a self-help brigade to Washington is about as likely as John Boehner becoming a Democrat. But that's not to say he couldn't benefit from a few off-the-wall, non-political voices to stimulate fresh thinking in an executive office that's thought by many to be too insular. Of course, consultants, many of whom traffic in tired aphorisms and common-sense advice, are hardly the answer. But stepping out of Washington's circle of advisers for some fresh ideas certainly couldn't hurt.

Humor me, for a moment, and help me think of who might make up a more serious modern-day guru summit. I'll start, by suggesting the following three:

Obama's economic team has been beset by infighting, and a thought leader who can help Obama examine both the best ways to put together teams and when they're actually needed is Jon Katzenbach. Author of the best-seller The Wisdom of Teams, founder of an eponymous consulting firm (since acquired by Booz & Co.) and adviser to major corporations, Katzenbach is arguably the smartest guy out there when it comes to building organizations and teams that work. Katzenbach would likely prompt Obama to think hard about when a team is really necessary, and when it would be better to just put someone in charge. "The notion that a team is always better is misleading," he told Fast Company. "Yet all too often, that's the path that managers choose."

Obama's senior advisers have been criticized for being too insular, made up of people who have been with him for years. To help him reach out to a wide group of divergent thinkers, he might talk to Christopher Meyer. The founder of Monitor Talent, Meyer acts as a matchmaker of sorts, connecting leaders looking for inspiration to a broad rolodex of experts on science, business and society. A thought leader himself--Meyer is the co-author of Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy--Meyer could tailor a panel of future-minded thinkers on the biggest problems our country faces, from the economy to the environment.

In the coming months, Obama will have countless opportunities to do some deep soul-searching, and will have to decide whether he'll compromise more with the right, as Clinton did, or stick hard and fast to his base. Leadership is indeed a lonely job, and there are countless psychologists, experts and coaches ready to serve as sounding boards for the difficult questions Obama will face. As a longtime writer on management topics, I have spoken to many of them, and few are worth a second thought. But I have always walked away from conversations with University of Southern California sage Warren Bennis feeling hopeful that leadership is not just a murky practice that enriches gurus but the most important skill of our time, and one that must be practiced, practiced, practiced. "Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself," he's said before, and would likely say to Obama. "It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult."

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 9, 2010; 10:53 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Federal government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Should President Obama shake up his staff? | Next: Falling victim to the 'tyranny of the moment'


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Whether the president chooses to put a "smart" person in charge or a new team the missing element is not "who" but "what" benefit he can find for the warring parties to reach peace over a budget. Without a sweet spot of mutual benefit collaboration - or any cooperation or teamwork is destined to fail.

Neither the president nor the Democrats have found that Sweet Spot nor can I think of any except, perhaps the possibility that several credible, trusted and well-known individuals who rarely agree on something speak up - compellingly, specifically and (most of all) together for the basics of a budget on which they can agree.

Posted by: kareanderson | September 14, 2010 10:54 AM

But they failed to enact the most obvious program necessitated by the 20 million searching for work: a jobs program.

Where is it Dems?

You still have time and votes if you hurry.

Most folks in this nation are either out of work or know someone who is.

What are you waiting for?

Posted by: umstbjoking | September 12, 2010 10:58 PM

I'm sorry to say this but I think this is a very immature article. At first I thought it was a hoax. The suggestion of 'motivational speakers'?? This has got to be kidding, right.
Yes, agreed President Obama has very unwisely chosen 'insiders' to solve problems created by just those insiders and their cronies. Would he have been raked over the coals publicly if he had chosen Paul Krugman as Treasury Secretary and KEPT Van Jones on his staff no matter WHAT Rupert Murdock and Roger Ailes thought about it? The very, very first thing he should have done was to find a way to take out FOX - a media empire that is 24/7 intent on his destruction. Will Warren Bennis have any good suggestions about how to do that.

Posted by: ericksonml | September 10, 2010 4:40 PM

Obama has been receiving poor advice from someone for the past 21 months. He needs a brain trust to keep him out of the trouble he has gotten himself into. Look at the polls! His decline in effectiveness is shameful...and he has squandered a golden opportunity to lead America out of a bad recession. His decision making has compounded our problems and he has no one to blame but his stubborn and conceited self.

Posted by: Migrant1 | September 10, 2010 9:56 AM

How about Alfred E. Newman? I KNOW he would fit right in with current intellectual masters in charge.

Posted by: jellymon | September 10, 2010 9:51 AM

Many of the comments offered lack analysis but have a surfeit of malice. If we do not pause a moment to determine when the buffoonery is going to stop, we will come to expect this idiotic language and behavior as normal.

Posted by: fasm7700 | September 10, 2010 9:49 AM

We don't need more stink'n inspiration from Obama. We need leadership. When Clinton made his pact with the devil (NAFTA, welfare-to-work,etc.) he sold out the American middle class for political expediency...his.
Obama is doing the same thing, sticking with a bunch of Clintonistas and Wall Street insiders, like Geithner, Summers, Rubin, and Hillary. Obama's perverse need for bipartisanship, and its resulting sell-out in the form of weakened legislation that nobody likes or trusts (health reform for example) has made his prospects for a second term and a democratic hold on Congress tenuous. Refusing to repair the carnage to our democracy done in the Bush years, we are falling down a rabbit hole of income disparity, permanent joblessness, homelessness, and second-rate in everything. Even Michelle Obama is tone deaf and of limited imagination. Is her overarching embrace of childhood obesity the smartest cause she can come up with?
How about childhood hunger?

Posted by: shapiromarilyn | September 10, 2010 8:40 AM

I guess a "Brain Trust" is one option.
Unfortunately the only 100% successful solution would be a "Brain Transplant".
This is however; the most compelling argument I have heard for more extensive work in Stem Cell Research thus far!

Posted by: rexreddy | September 10, 2010 7:39 AM

kind of a silly idea

I've seen so many dysfunctional clients walk around with mission statements, using cheesy buzzwords from books like these, and heading straight for bankruptcy. Would hate to see what the "gurus" would do to an already misguided White House.

Posted by: tgt111 | September 10, 2010 7:30 AM

Erskine Bowles.

Posted by: isthisajoke | September 10, 2010 7:28 AM

The President does not need more people who just know how to talk. He needs people who really know how to do something.

Posted by: dnjake | September 10, 2010 7:14 AM

I would probably support two of the three names on your list. Obama's problem and the problem with Washington in general is that the policy wonks and agency heads in this administration are all either from academe, liberal foundations, or lawyers all of whom have never managed a business that produces goods or sells goods. This is a fundamental flaw in our governing system.

Posted by: georgiarat | September 10, 2010 6:38 AM

Brain trust? You're joking, right? Democrats?

Posted by: WJStephens | September 10, 2010 2:28 AM

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