Obama Misses the Point and Fails the “Crucible of Leadership” Test

Obama seems more like a politician trying to keep his job than a leader seeking to solve problems

There are assorted factors involved in leadership, but eventually it all comes down to this: Being willing to make the tough decisions and accept responsibility for the results.

Individuals may exhibit all the qualities and attributes of a strong leader and most times they serve them well, but in every leader’s life there comes what is called a “crucible of leadership.” This crucible of leadership takes the form of a transformative challenge or issue; the resolution of which will not only determine their success as a leader, but the future of the organization they lead. How the leader responds to these critical times exposes their depth of leadership, who they are and what really matters to them.

Less than one month after becoming president, Abraham Lincoln faced his crucible of leadership when southern states began to secede from the Union and Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter. By any definition this was a transformative crisis, because how Lincoln responded would forever determine the future of the country. Clearly cognizant of the matériel, psychological and human costs of what would obviously be a brutal civil war; Lincoln was besieged with recommendations, options and criticism from all sides. It would have been far easier and more popular for Lincoln to have taken the path recommended by many to delay or avert war; by either appeasing the South or allowing the North and South to split and go their separate ways.

Yet this new, inexperienced and untested president responded to his “crucible of leadership” by deciding that no matter what the risk to his own future, for the sake of the future of the country, he could not allow the secession of southern states to stand. He accepted the repugnance of civil war because he believed that anything less than preservation of the Union would be failure. This resulted in Lincoln being reviled in both the North and South and ultimately led to his death. But because of his response to the “crucible of leadership” he is revered today as one of the great leaders, not just of this country, but also of mankind. (Civil War had become the only viable option to preserve the Union, because politicians had papered-over and dithered for 60 years in the face of the crucial issue that could destroy the Union.)

Backpedaling at Warp Speed

In a speech this past week, President Obama meticulously and effectively postulated the Draconian repercussions that would imperil the future of our country if deficit spending and exponentially growing national debt coupled with an antiquated tax code are allowed to continue unabated. Obama himself made the point that this is truly a transformational crisis that, one way or another, it will determine the future of this country. However, once Obama laid out the premise of the crisis and the perils we face if it is not resolved, he rushed for the cover of platitudes and broad statements favored by indecisive leaders, rather than standing up for the specific, difficult actions needed to resolve it. Obama’s speech was more a profile in campaigning for re-election, than a demonstration of courage. President Obama came into office with the self-proclaimed and promised mantle of a “game changer,” but by his words and actions it is clear that he is just another “game player,” albeit one of the better ones.

Obama correctly pointed out, as others have, that almost 70 percent of the deficit and expanding national debt is caused by the ever-increasing unsustainable costs of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a prescription drug program. (The problems inherent in these programs lie not with their objective, but rather are the result of unfunded promises made by pandering politicians seeking to win elections.) And yet, rather than exhibiting the courage of his leadership and the power of his office as a bully pulpit, Obama disavowed the need to make fundamental structural changes to these programs. In fact, he offered a blistering attack on those who have made such recommendations.

Obama did a great job explaining the financial problems facing the country, but rather than stepping up and standing out to offer admittedly difficult and controversial solutions, he retreated to the shelter of the typical politician by suggesting we can solve the problem by “doing more with less.” This is not the approach of a leader who is willing to embrace and face the “crucible of leadership.”

There’s a Lesson Here for All Managers

You cannot prepare for the future by simply defending the status quo, especially when it is broken. It is right for Obama to forcefully argue that there is no need to abandon the principles and objectives of these programs (as many Republicans, aka Tea Partiers seek), which is to provide a social safety net for all Americans. However, a leader can stick to his principles and vision while admitting that the tactics used to achieve them have failed. This is where Obama has failed.

Certainly it is difficult and politically risky to tell millions of people (voters) who depend upon these programs that they are broken and need structural change to fix them, but that is what facing the “crucible of leadership” is about. Just last week I mentioned Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) as an example of a politician who was willing to step up and stand out. Obama did just the opposite. In the very worst pandering fashion, Obama set himself up as the great defender of these programs as they are today. His proposal that the programs could be fixed and costs reduced with “improved efficiency,” cracking down on fraud and establishing “review committees” to determine levels of service and cost are the same tired, old suggestions that always come from the lips of politicians seeking re-election. (Earlier in his speech, Obama even criticized this approach.) The recommendations of Obama serve only to delay the inevitable and are reminiscent of the actions of early 19th century politicians seeking to put off dealing with the issue of slavery that eventually led to the calamity of the Civil War. They simply, as the popular saying goes, “kicked the can down the road.” And so did Obama.

The proposals offered by Republicans are no better, if not worse. Where Obama seeks to solve the deficit spending and budgetary shortfalls of social programs by tinkering with the details, Republicans (pandering to their base) believe that these programs – as with government itself – are inherently evil and the way to solve the financial crisis is to eviscerate both the government and the premise of these programs. Clearly, this approach is akin to killing the patient to cure the cancer.

Simply ignoring or tinkering around the edges will not make deficit spending and the national debt go away. There is complete agreement from all sides of the political spectrum that if left unattended this financial crisis will imperil the cohesion and very future of the country, maybe even more so than the issue of slavery 150 years ago. What we need to look for is a leader willing to accept the crucible of leadership by defending the principles of these programs (as Lincoln defended the principles of the Union), while pushing for structural and tactical changes that will solve the crisis before it is too late. So far, we are still looking.

(There is another important point to this financial crisis and that is an antiquated tax code. This issue will be addressed in the next blog.)

And the Moral of the Story …

None of us are likely to face issues of the magnitude that Lincoln did and Obama does today, but anyone in a leadership position – at any level – must understand and be prepared for their own “crucible of leadership.” Surely it will come and when it does, how we respond will give evidence as to our true abilities as a leader and determine the future of the organization we lead.

There is no way to predict when the “crucible” will appear or what form it will take, but we can prepare for it by building a foundation of leadership based upon trust, honesty, ethics, inviolate principles, communication and vision. As with Lincoln, we will be successful facing our own “crucible of leadership,” only if we are willing to risk our future for the future of others. That is the only type of leadership that can face the “crucible of leadership” head on and win.

One response to “Obama Misses the Point and Fails the “Crucible of Leadership” Test

  1. hi there..yes he will as long as we keep the hopes realistic… we need to maange our own expectations.. this messiah nonsense grates on my nerves.. the man is a politician… he will never be able to please all the people all the time.. am glad he knows this.. am disturbed that some folk do not.. the next 4 years are not going to be a picnic..

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