Obama's 'leadership vs. management' problem
In President Obama's 60 Minutes interview Sunday night, he offered up a revealing lesson he's learned in his first two years in office. "Leadership isn't just legislation," he told interviewer Steve Kroft. "It's a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together." As he's said at least twice since Tuesday's historic election, the president believes his administration spent so much effort trying to get things done that they didn't spend enough time focused on how they did them.
Whether he's actually learned those lessons or not is a fair question. As the Post's Eugene Robinson lays out, the president didn't necessarily come across as convincing or undaunted in the interview. Rather than reassuring voters with a vision for the future, he admitted to being discouraged at times, bemoaning the fact that presidents are held responsible for everything but "don't always have control of everything." Such comments may humanize a leader, but they do little to give people confidence.
The president, in effect, is confronting an all too classic problem. Obama's "legislation vs. leadership" quandary is not all that different from the "management vs. leadership" dilemma many people in power face. Many leaders aren't very good managers, while many managers don't really know how to lead. To find both qualities in one person--the ability to execute and the capacity to inspire--is exceedingly rare.
The "legislation" part of the job Obama referred to is really the same thing as management. Good managers are great implementers, excellent negotiators and extraordinary taskmasters. They set goals and meet numbers, while making sure everyone who works for them is headed in the same direction and knows what to do. They're good at navigating politics, executing on strategic plans and keeping the trains running on time.
The "leadership" part, meanwhile, is the murkier work. From setting the right tone at the top to laying out a positive vision of the future, leaders don't just execute, they inspire. They unite people behind common goals, they're persuasive about their ideas and principles, and they motivate people to be and do more than they thought they were capable.
When President Obama came into office, most people surely thought his strength was leadership and his weakness would be implementing his plans. Roundly criticized by his opponents for his lack of executive experience, the president's governing skills were questioned while his leadership bona fides seemed well formed. At the time, his capacity to excite was undeniable; his articulation of a bright tomorrow irrefutably evident.
But two years in--whether you agree with his policies or not--the president seems to be known more for his execution than his inspiration. He has passed two landmark pieces of legislation that worked toward campaign promises, even if they currently feel more like problems than achievements. And the speed at which his administration has worked toward completing an extraordinary list of tasks is blurry enough that it is as confusing to voters as it is remarkable.
In the end, the capacity to manage well and lead with conviction is rarely found in equal measure in one person. And that's OK for many jobs--mid-level supervisors who take most of their cues from above clearly need management chops the most, while church pastors need to have leadership skills in spades. But if Obama is to survive the next election, he'll have to be able to trumpet real accomplishments while boosting the confidence of Americans. Clearly, the president of the United States must be both.
November 9, 2010; 10:46 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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