There are many outstanding managers but very few true leaders
Barack Obama has been president for almost six years and sadly, the most consistent and persistent criticism has sought to portray him as a feeble leader who is neither decisive nor effective.
Much of this perception arises from the coordinated, concerted effort of obstreperous Republicans. Lacking the power, creativity or willingness to offer anything constructive, they have adopted a strategy of belligerent hostility in an effort to thwart any Obama plan of action. The result is to further erode the opinion of his leadership skills.
At first blush it may seem incongruous to suggest that someone with the ability to twice be elected president of the United States lacks strong leadership skills. Nevertheless, the claim of Obama’s deficient leadership qualities would have fallen flat if there was not some truth in the charge.
Barack Obama is an extremely intelligent individual with exceptional talents, but a natural born leader he is not. On the other hand, Obama is one of the most effective managers ever to occupy the Oval Office.
The Record Speaks for Itself
Any objective review of Obama accomplishments, especially in the face of the ferocious, lock-step resistance from Republicans and right-wing wackos, is clear evidence of his effectiveness as a manager. But that does not qualify him as a true leader. In reality, any success that Obama has achieved is evidence of his exceptional ability as a pragmatic and practical manager—not his visionary leadership skill.
True leaders are, by nature, so passionate about the vision they seek to achieve and lead others to accept that they are rarely practical and pragmatic. When was the last time you recall a leader being accused of being “deliberative, detail oriented and anal?”
Conversely, the essence of management skill is to be practical and pragmatic, almost to a fault. Rarely will a manager – no matter how successful – be described as a “visionary leader.” And it is this misperception of the important elements of management as leadership that ultimately creates disappointment and is at the base of Obama’s low approval ratings.
A Proper Definition of Terms
The problem is that few concepts are more bandied about, misunderstood or misconstrued than leadership. (“Love” might be the only one that comes to mind.) And because the mantle of leadership is so exalted as to be something everyone should strive to achieve, the meaning of leadership has become adulterated and diluted.
Many mistakenly believe that leadership is bestowed by title or position of power. How many times have you seen companies identify the senior management group as “the leadership team”? But just calling someone with management responsibilities “a leader” does not make it so and this misperception can lead to confusion and disappointment, for both the manager and the followers.
One reason the concepts of management and leadership become hopelessly tangled is because success in any endeavor is dependent on the commingling of both. The vision of a leader requires management to make it become a reality. Management without a vision is no more than wayward bureaucracy.
In simple terms, the leader has a vision of what should be done, while a manager has a plan to get it done. What makes a leader seem weak and a manager bureaucratic stems from the fact that very few visionaries are effective managers and even fewer managers are visionaries. That is the reason why, once a company has achieved a certain degree of success, the visionary founder is often replaced by those charged with managing the effort to retain the success. (Often with little success.)
Obama, in truth, is a much better manager than he is a leader. In most situations – especially in business – this would not be a significant problem. But Obama is President; Americans revere and expect leadership qualities in a president and discount their management ability—a skill even more important than vision.
Jimmy Carter was far more effective as a manager than Ronald Reagan ever was, but given the choice between the manager and the perceived visionary, the people rejected Carter and embraced Reagan. Today, Reagan is an icon and Carter is an afterthought. My guess is that if you asked the average person to list the five most effective U.S. presidents, the names of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy would be most often mentioned. What these men all had in common was the aura of leadership and visionary thinking, not their effectiveness as managers.
The closest parallel to what Obama faces as a more effective manager than leader would be to compare the dynamics of the temperament and style of Teddy Roosevelt (left) against his handpicked successor, William Taft. Roosevelt was clearly the type of hyperactive visionary leader that attracts a strong following. He had a vision for a “progressive” America in which the role of government was to protect the weak against the strong, as opposed to a government that empowered the strong to abuse the weak that existed when he became president. Roosevelt passionately and aggressively set about to “bust the trusts” and change the rules of government in an effort to create a level playing field for all.
Clearly this is the definition of a leader: One who seeks to change the system, rather than manage it. Roosevelt’s vision generated heated hatred from the powerful and loving adulation from the powerless. The truth is that Roosevelt set the vision, but he was unable to manage it to fruition and failed in most of his efforts to change the system. Constrained by an admittedly impertinent promise not to run for re-election, Roosevelt turned to his good friend and protégé William Taft to succeed him as president. Taft believed in the vision Roosevelt had created, but he was a methodical, consensus-seeking, pragmatic manager, not a visionary leader. History reports that Taft was able to use his management skills to pass more legislation, change more laws and bring about more of Roosevelt’s vision than Roosevelt himself. And yet, it is the visage of Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore, not that of Howard Taft.
You see, Americans love their leaders, but give short shrift to managers. And viewed with even more disdain are managers dressed in a leader’s clothing. President Obama shares in the blame for the electorate’s disappointment in his leadership abilities, because in his effort to be elected president, he positioned himself as a “transforming visionary leader.” His election as the first African-American was certainly a transforming event for the country, but when the “vision” failed to materialize and when Obama naturally fell back on his inclination as a manager, disappointment and disillusion in his leadership ability took hold.
In fairness to Obama, from the day he was inaugurated, he was faced with the most serious economic challenge since the Great Depression. It was a challenge that called for sober management – not inflammatory rhetoric – in order to prevent a “total meltdown” of the economy. Obama’s strength – managing the problem – was successful in preventing a debilitating depression and setting the stage for a fairly rapid economic recovery. On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt met the same type of economic challenge with visionary leadership but lacked the coolness of an effective manager and the Great Depression dragged on for a decade. And yet, it is Roosevelt – not Obama – who is revered as a great leader.
If you need even further proof of how leadership and management can be confused – and how hungry people are for real leadership – all one needs to do is return to the election of 2012. By any measurement the presidential election was Romney’s to lose – and he did. Break the 2012 presidential election down to one defining tipping point and it is this: Obama reiterated a promise of visionary leadership while Romney stressed his experience as a manager and promised more of it. Even though Obama had failed to deliver on the promise of visionary leadership, the people chose the hope for leadership over the promise of management.
It could be argued that what is needed in these complicated and confusing times is an effective manager, and, in truth, we probably did end up with the best manager, but for the wrong reasons. The only problem is that when management is misrepresented and misperceived as leadership, the residue is always disappointment—even if the manager is successful.