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TSA debacle: How media controversies keep tripping up Obama

One of the biggest problems with the Obama administration, its critics on both the right but especially the left like to say, is its communications strategy. Obama and his team can't stay on message, the pundits say. The president wades into too many major or minor media melees, keeping him talking about Shirley Sherrod or the 9/11 mosque when he'd rather be addressing his economic accomplishments.

But there may be something deeper at play here than communications, argued the Post's Perry Bacon Jr. yesterday. The Obama administration has repeatedly missed out on growing sentiment against a policy until the criticism has become overwhelming. The more thorough TSA pat-downs had "long simmered among members of the traveling public and on conservative Web sites," Bacon writes. "But the administration initially did little to buttress its own view and defend those policies."

The ability to pick up on weak signals and get out ahead of a controversy is a tricky proposition for every leader, especially those who are already trying to put out fires around the globe and manage an extraordinarily complex array of challenges. Sensing what will anger people or ignite into a full-blown crisis--and what's a mere triviality that will be made worse by giving it attention--has tripped up Obama multiple times, as brouhahas over debates like the so-called "death panels" or the Guantanamo prisoners' trials have erupted before he could get in front of them.

Granted, the current controversy feels a little overblown. The media loves a good holiday travel nightmare story, and new polls suggest more than two-thirds of Americans support the TSA's full-body scans, if not the enhanced "pat-downs." It's clear that the worst anecdotes of heavy-handed TSA agents are few and far between.

That said, the ability to pick up on budding hullabaloos and respond to them before they become major crises is a critical leadership attribute. One of the foremost thinkers on the topic, Karl Weick, a psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan's business school, has written extensively about managing the unexpected, and why it's so dangerous to discount the little things. In his book, Weick and co-author Kathleen Sutcliffe study what they call "high reliability organizations," and find that leaders best prepared to pick up on future crises are preoccupied with failures rather than successes, are reluctant to simplify matters, and are extremely sensitive to their operations, among other things.

Perhaps the Obama administration could do more of that. Or perhaps there's not much it can do in today's 24/7 news cycle to get out ahead of the next imbroglio to ignite. A better ear to the ground can only go so far when cable news hosts get involved, after all. But if there's any hope of crafting a better communications strategy, the president and his team will first have to detect which of the weak signs of controversy will grow strong. And which ones they have to ignore.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 23, 2010; 12:21 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Leadership advice , Leadership skills , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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He talks too much and poses even more...he needs to back down...he is not a star...he's the President!

Posted by: jbeeler | November 27, 2010 4:47 PM

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