Consensus is what you seek when you don’t really know what you seek.
After almost six years in the White House President Obama has consistently demonstrated a proclivity to deal with any problem or crisis by seeking a solution based on consensus and coalition. This has resulted in the impression – true or not – of Obama as a ponderous, indecisive and ineffective leader.
Considering Obama’s background as a constitutional lawyer, community organizer and even U.S. senator, it should not be a surprise that as president he would adopt this collegial, deliberative approach to problem solving. These qualities of consensus building and collaboration can be effective when confronting a problem – indeed are often required – when one lacks clear executive power, but they are ineffective ways to demonstrate the leadership demanded of those vested with power.
Rightly or wrongly, the American people expect their president to lead, not mediate. When it comes to leadership –especially political leadership – the dependence on consensus-building and coalition to set an objective or solve a problem are perceived to be signs of waffling and weakness, not resolve and confidence. It is one of the reasons why – having experienced power and its use in the public arena – state governors and military leaders have tended to be more effective presidents.
Same Old, Same Old
No matter what challenge or crisis that has confronted Obama – health care, immigration, Iraq, Afghanistan, the “Arab Spring,” Libya, Syria and now ISIS – the approach has been the same. He has offered the words of a leader, but the actions of a manager; and a bureaucratic one at that. In effect, Obama has made the most damaging mistake a leader can make and that is to promise more than can be delivered and to deliver less than has been promised. Those who seek to lead or are in positions of leadership must understand that it is the communication of a clear, consistent vision, combined with a focused commitment to a specific plan of action that creates the aura of leadership. In other words, to be successful, leaders must give followers a reason to follow.
Don’t get me wrong here, consensus and coalition are important tools in a leader’s arsenal, but they should never be used by a leader to determine what should be done; they are only effective when used to develop a plan for how the objective is achieved. Teams can be of value in determining actions needed to meet the goals of a plan, but they are ineffective at creating a plan. Teams don’t lead, leaders lead.
Examples of Obama’s inability to demonstrate clear, focused leadership – especially in foreign affairs – are too legion to list fully. After calling for and promising support for the expansion of democracy in the Middle-east and then standing on the sidelines as the tumultuous “Arab Spring” exploded, Obama gave the perception of out-of-touch leadership. The often repeated promise that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “must and will go,” and yet unwilling to take specific actions to achieve that end, only send a message of confusion and weakness. Remember the infamous “don’t cross this red-line or you will be sorry” message to al-Assad? And then when the line was crossed, Obama blinked and rushed for “consensus” from both friends and enemies to decide what to do. He had offered strong words, but his actions signaled vacillation and weakness of resolve. That is not the way to project strong, confident leadership! The irony is that this opened the door for Russia’s Putin to take the lead and receive the credit for solving the problem.
The projection of weakness always emboldens bullies. One has to wonder if Obama had a reputation for saying what he means and doing what he says, would Putin and Russia have at least thought twice about the incursion into the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea? Did Obama’s often repeated declaration that “the war in Iraq was over” and America would not be involved again embolden ISIS to act?
The threat from ISIS and how to confront it is just the latest example of Obama’s reliance on consensus and coalition that creates the image of confused weak leadership. He calls for the “total destruction” of ISIS, (which is probably impossible, short of nuclear war) but in the same speech limits the involvement of American power to do so and calls on other countries to step up with plans and actions. Obama then directs the arming of rebel groups in Syria to fight ISIA. The very same groups he refused to arm to fight al-Assad, because they were too dangerous to American interests. This does not portray an image – or reality – of clear, consistent leadership. Is it any wonder that other countries are standing back and doing nothing? Can you explain what Obama’s plan for the “total destruction” of ISIS is? That’s the problem, neither can he!
In fairness, any problem presented to a president is complex. There are no easy solutions and Obama is certainly not the first president who has failed to resolve the issues. But there are lessons here that any leader can learn. You can’t portray the image or reality of a strong leader by unequivocally stating that “American troops will not be involved” and then equivocating by slowly but surely creeping back into a war.
The responsibility of the leader – if they want to lead – is to develop, communicate and be committed to a vision that is reasoned, clear and achievable. What confidence will a leader engender by going to the followers and asking: What should we do? The ability to create a consensus and to enlist the support of others are valuable talents for a leader to develop, but they should be used to determine how to do something, not what to do.
Another lesson a leader can learn by observing Obama’s leadership style (or lack thereof) is the value of consistency. Nothing destroys the credibility of a leader faster than saying one thing and then failing to consistently – even stubbornly – stick to what was committed. We have seen the impact on the leadership perception of Obama when his only consistency has been to make commitment and then fail to stick to it. People may not – and really don’t have to – agree with the decision the leader has made, but when they can rely on the unwavering steadfastness of that decision, they will know what to do. Without that decisiveness, followers tend to be immobilized, waiting for the next change.
And if you need an example of unremitting presidential decisiveness, recall Ronald Reagan’s leadership when in 1981 he fired virtually all 11,000 of the nation’s striking air traffic controllers. You may disagree with his decision, but you have to admire Reagan’s leadership on this issue and steadfast resolve to stand behind his decision which became viewed as “one of the most important events in late twentieth century U.S. labor history”.
That’s why weak leaders are so contemptuous; they hide behind “consensus and coalition” because this approach to a problem can tamp it down and delay making the tough decisions that will ultimately resolve the problem. This approach may hide a crisis, but the crisis will always return. And when it does, a new leader has probably been installed to meet it.
And the Moral of the Story …
The lesson here is that if you seek to be a leader – at any level – then you have to be willing to lead. As Obama has learned (or should have), leading is not following. The leader must be willing to stand up, stand out and even stand alone to identify, communicate and commit to a clear, attainable vision to problem solving and success. Only after that has been accomplished can consensus and coalition be used as tools to reach the desired objective.
The only path to success as a leader is to first understand that leaders lead and teams follow.