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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.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 9, 2010; 10:46 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Leadership development , Leadership skills , Personal Leadership Journey , Presidential leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Leadership is about building relationships and steering others (who can be opposed) towards a shared vision. Management is about getting things done. Therefore leadership is relational; management is transactional.

President Obama is exactly right when he says 'leadership isn't legislation.' That's a big confession on his part. Unfortunately, according to today's NYT (see excerpt below), he's not shown great chops at building relationships. Until he improves in this area, the leadership equation is going nowhere...

"...Likewise, Mr. Obama is not the gregarious politician that Mr. Clinton was. He does not invite political adversaries, or even political allies, to play golf. “He doesn’t really try to get things done through personal relationships,” said one Democrat who has worked with him. “He basically tries to overwhelm you with ideas and wherewithal. He’s friends with his friends, and with legislators, he tries to pass laws...”

Posted by: jgarlington | November 10, 2010 4:23 PM

Obama, with a filibuster proof congress, rammed through socialist nonsense over the strong objection of the American people. This is no measure of his legislative prowess. That comes this term, where he will have to actually build coalitions across party lines to get anything done.

Obama has seriously erred in his arrogance of assuming he knows best what the American public wants. Even to this day he views popular disdain for his Obamacare as a mere propaganda problem. He is insulated and out of touch, and unless he changes course, will go down as a 1 term president with a legacy of lasting damage to the Democratic party.

The only magic Obama ever had was back in the days when he promised everything, and the gullible swallowed his tripe in heaping handfuls between adoring glances at the new messiah. Now that he actually has a record, and that record is one of utter failure, it will be much harder to reclaim that ignorant adoration he once had.

Hopefully America will walk away from this with the lesson learned that being a minority first for office is not sufficient in and of itself grounds for receiving authorization to govern this country. Hopefully the press will learn that the next time they feel giddy chills run up their legs over the next messiah, they will bother to actually vette the candidate.

Posted by: Wiggan | November 10, 2010 1:44 PM

Obama wants to spend every Americans retirement to spread the wealth. So democrats you get what ya voted for this man to steal an rob you of all the years you worked to go to those that don't. It was on the news all afternoon yesterday. I bet he won't give up his retirement so I'll be damned if he gets mine. I personally fight an many will when they finnally realize. He is the worst Presidnet in history. The Democrats voted for this crook he thinks we owe our retiremnt for him. He can go straight to hell I won't as long as I breath in me allow Him an the Demacrats to do this OBAMANATION!

Posted by: JWTX | November 10, 2010 9:30 AM

Obummer carries on like a spoiled, pampered five-year-old who suddenly has to line up, be quiet and take turns in kindergarten. He seems stunned that *he* is not always first called on, always welcomed to speak or expected to take last choice sometimes. These kindergarten lessons, familiar to any teacher, do not mean the child is a brat who will never norm up.
They mean he was ill-served by his parents, er, handlers - who overly-deferred to him, kissed butt and allowed followers to assume a cultlike worshipful stance.
He does not need to be knocked off a pedestal. He needs to step from pedestal to firm ground, equally accessible to those who agree with him and those who don't.
He drank his own Kool-Aid and kept a super-close coterie of aides who were outright drunk on Kool-Aid.
Dude, there is a whole world out here. We are hurting economically, worried about the deaths and injuries in the wars (I thought you were the peace candidate) and angry at the upper-income takeover over our gov.
Do you even *get* that these are the issues? Is there any "ther" there?
I don't see it. Hope I am wrong. Actually, I pray I am wrong....

Posted by: FloridaChick | November 10, 2010 8:36 AM

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