Hile Rutledge
Trainer, author

Hile Rutledge

CEO and owner of OKA (Otto Kroeger Associates), a training and consulting firm specializing in leadership and team development.

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Debate and diversity

Q: President Obama, who is said to be wary of "outsiders," is facing his first senior-staff shuffle, in which he'll lose two of his closest aides. Do you see such times of change -- in Obama's example and in your own experience -- as a positive or a negative? Do you see your success as coming mostly from following your instincts and sticking to a tight-knit group of advisers, or from collaborating with a wide array of people?


President Franklin Roosevelt is known to have surrounded himself with many different kinds of people with disparate opinions. He liked the debate and diversity of ideas and did not mind the disagreement. He would hear everyone and then decide whatever he decided. With unarguably one of the most successful and impactful presidencies in our nation's history, Roosevelt presents a compelling leadership model.

A Roosevelt fan, Jimmy Carter also gathered around him people with varied views, but presidential advisers and Carter cabinet members have since noted that, unlike FDR, Carter was either unwilling or unable to bridge the gaps of the factions these varied opinions represented, and he wound up with as much opposition in his own Democratic Party as he found across the partisan aisle.

Jimmy Carter was followed in office by Ronald Reagan, who was about as diametrically opposed to Jimmy Carter in both ideology and leadership philosophy as can be imagined.

Reagan had a tight and focused set of principles and values, and he wanted around him an inner circle of trusted people who sang only from this shared sheet of music. Not only was this a contributing factor to a presidency that is now regarded as one of the most important and successful in the latter half of the 20th Century, but its focus and consistency of message remains the blueprint for the modern conservative movement.

However, Reagan's brand of homogeneity of thought and internalized reliance on an inner circle of like-minded advisers is not always a recipe for success. Richard Nixon constructed his administrations on these principles, and it was this drive for control and domination of thought that led to his illegal activities, abuse of power and eventual political failure and public disgrace.

Are leaders better off surrounding themselves with varied opinions or like-minded lieutenants? While it's an interesting question, the outcome is clearly rooted in the leader's ability to maintain the support of the led or governed while implementing his or her agenda -- regardless of the process that brought that agenda into being.

Reagan and Roosevelt had in common the ability to make critical mass of those they led feel connected to, heard, important, right. Nixon and Carter also share some important qualities -- in spite of impressive achievements that both men made while president, critical mass of those they led, at the end, felt neither man "got it" and that neither represented their values or connected to them personally.

This is a particularly pertinent question to ponder as we watch Obama shed a few trusted people in his inner circle to prepare for what is sure to be a contentious and eventful close to this presidential term. Where will his ideas come from, and how well will he manage the circle from which they flow -- regardless of how broad or contentious it turns out to be? And more importantly, will he be able to convince a majority of his nation that where he is leading is where we want to go?

By Hile Rutledge  |  October 4, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and instinct Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Isn't wanting to be surrounded by people you trust pretty much Human nature?

I think the outcome is dependant on the nature of the leader. If he punishes people who tell him unpleasent truths, he's be poorly served. On the other hand, if he rewards members of the inner circle who make efforts to get him the whole story, even the parts he doesn't like, then things shoulfd turn out better.

By the way, whay are we having this debate? I seem to recall that when Bush did the same thing, he was demonized in the press for it - SANS debate. Why the different treatment?

Posted by: ZZim | October 4, 2010 10:04 AM
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