At the one-year anniversary of Obama taking office, we’re witnessing a nationwide chilling effect of arctic proportions. A movement fueled by passion has morphed into a static bureaucracy drained of emotion.
What happened? Are people just fickle and chronically dissatisfied? Did Obama’s followers have too high hopes of what could actually be achieved? Has the recession jaded the population to the point of not caring?
While all of those factors, particularly the recession, play a role in what’s happening, the real issue has less to do with what’s going on “out there” and more to do with the psychological underpinnings of leadership. Obama’s critical misstep has little to do with executive competence and much to do with misperceiving where administration ends and leadership begins.
When Obama took office he was riding a surge of emotion that wasn’t sustainable, as anyone paying attention knew. But that’s not really the problem. Political movements don’t maintain consistent energy levels no matter who is leading them, and change should be expected—as I’m sure it was by Obama’s cadre. The real problem starts when you’re unable to manage change from one level to the next, and anticipate what’s necessary to be effective at the next level.
This is where a skilled communications advisor (someone psychologically astute but pragmatically focused), would point out that “moving to the next level” can be viewed from an insular perspective or an external perspective. From an insular perspective, the next level is all about competence. You sold your product, now it’s time to execute. From an external perspective, the next level is about doing what you said you’d do, but also maintaining a vibrant emotional connection with those who bought your goods.
Both perspectives are valid, but embracing one to the exclusion of the other is suicide. And for most of the last year, Obama and his team’s perspective has been decidedly insular. The result is that all of Obama’s coldly intellectual and aloof characteristics have been amplified. When he addresses the nation, it’s as an administrator, not a leader—and that’s just not good enough.
Problem is, people want competence, but they don’t want a competent administrator running the nation. They want an impassioned and effective leader who never loses external perspective. Obama seemed to offer that rare combination before he was elected, but since entering office he’s lost the connection.
The hypothetical communications advisor I mentioned could help turn this around. That person would tell the President that people need more than “I’m doing my job.” Telling people you’re doing your job, in whatever erudite way you say it, does nothing to quell their fears or validate what they’re experiencing. And when you reach out to the electorate, drop the lecture prose and stoicism–that’s how administrators talk, not leaders. Further, don’t think that relying on shtick like writing for Newsweek or showing up in a Weathproof ad can supplement what you’re missing. It doesn’t, and eventually it’ll all be viewed as just another chip off the thin veneer covering your lack of leadership.
Most importantly, the advisor would tell Obama that he has to stop ducking disillusionment. You can’t make everyone happy, and leaders don’t even try. You’re going to let a percentage of your supporters down no matter what. But if you allow your fear of doing so push you further into an insular perspective, the situation can only get worse. Before long, people will wonder if they have a leader at all, or just an aloof administrator running a bloated, visionless bureaucracy.
Obama needs to take stock at the one-year mark and inject some new thinking into his leadership approach. Let the bureaucrats muddle and ponder. Let the administrators administrate. The President must lead. If he doesn’t, the next three years are going to make the Ford administration look dynamic.