Tag Archives: Presidential Leadership

Now it’s the Republicans Turn to Disappoint us as Leaders

As voters we live in the real world but continue to believe in a fantasy world.

The Republicans have scored a smashing victory; not just in taking control of the US Senate, but they have also scored gains all the way down the line to governors and state legislatures.

Most pundits suggest these results were driven more from frustration over Obama’s failed leadership than any worshipful endorsement of a clearly defined Republican agenda. Since such an agenda was actually nonexistent, the Republicans adroitly based the crux of their effective campaign message on being against Obama for his failure as a strong leader, rather than for anything specifically positive.

This is nothing new. Republican and Democrats have taken turns playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for 150 years now. The politicians in both parties republicans-vs-democratsknow that American voters long for and will fall for anyone who promises to be that “the great leader” who will solve all their problems. The party on the “outs” also knows that the electorate will turn on any leader who disappoints them –and that always happens when they fail to solve all the world’s problems.

The problem is that the problems we face are very real: income inequality, immigration reform, unemployment, Mideast unrest, healthcare, just to name a few. But promises – while they have to be made – are pure fantasy. It’s not that those elected don’t want to be effective leaders – they do. The problem is that the Constitution is not structured in a way that allows a leader to manage and solve problems the way they are in the real world.

What I mean by this is that the Constitution allows for the election of leaders, but not managers, and problem solving demands both. The Constitution – with the concept of division of power – vests the president with the responsibility to lead the country, but not the authority to manage it. The president is not CEO of America and while the president can influence he cannot command; he cannot rule by imperial fiat.

As a result, being elected president requires promising the voters more than what he can, with any certainty, deliver. And promises made are just as often promises broken:

  • President Franklin Roosevelt’s promise to keep the United States out of World War II . . .
  • President Jimmy Carter’s campaign oath to reduce defense spending when, in fact, he raised it . . .
  • President Nixon’s pledge that his “new leadership will end the war” in Vietnam . . .
  • President (H.W.) Bush’s promise (“Read my lips”) not to raise taxes . . .
  • President Obama’s vow to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay . . .

And the list of broken presidential promises big and small doesn’t end here. Virtually every U.S. president had retreated from the shaky ground they campaigned on, and broke some of the promises they made before taking office.

A Source of Great Frustration


Ultimately, voters are frustrated when presidents deliver less than what is promised. The voters then turn to those making the current promise hoping they can deliver. But that never happens—because it can’t. There is logic in this divided structure of government, because the alternative would be a monarchy or dictatorship, which would be even worse. But it does set up any president for failure, because to get elected they must promise to do what they don’t have the power to do and when he fails, it starts the circular fantasy all over again.

So what is point here? Well, for one thing, the business world is better positioned to offer a vision and achieve it, because the organization can take advantage of having both a leader and managers. However, it is important to understand the difference between a manager and a leader. When the responsibilities of the two become confused or mixed, problems follow. (Just observe ho government functions!)

Understanding The Difference Between Leadership and Management

There are those with the penchant to be leaders and those who have an affinity as natural managers. Both are important to the success of an organization, but there is a fundamental philosophical and operational difference that separates a leader and a manager. The leader and the manager have different and distinct responsibilities when it comes to influencing the success of an organization and if that difference is not fully understood and respected, the likely result is frustration, confusion and the ultimate failure of the organization. At the same time, success for both the leader and the manager are dependent on one another and if their efforts are not interconnected, both risk failure in their individual efforts.

In simple terms: A leader seeks to transform an organization by painting a vision of the future that both inspires and motivates others to work toward that objective. A manager has more of a “paint by the numbers” transactional mindset using detailed planning and specific tactics to complete the steps necessary to achieve the leader’s vision.

What is important to recognize is that the more “transactional” a person in a position of leadership is, the less likely he or she will be successful as a transformational a leader. Likewise, the more “big-picture” a manager is, the less likely he or she is to be successful as a manager. A transformational leader’s success is usually in direct proportion to his or her ability to communicate the idea, stay focused on the ultimate vision and show respect and concern for others in a way that inspires them to join together to achieve the vision. On the other hand, managers tend to be more successful when they focus more on process and procedure, with less concern for people issues.

These differences and the interdependence of leaders and managers is brought up here because it helps offer some perspective on why the Federal government seems so incapable of getting things done – especially big things – and being efficient. Maybe even more important, it helps us understand why presidents always seem to disappoint us as leaders. And the cycle has started all over again with the recent Republican victories.

And the Moral of the Story …

Transformation leaders and transactional managers both are necessary and play critical – if different – roles in the success of an organization. Without the ability to conceptualize and communicate a transformational vision that motivates all to participate in the outcome, an individual cannot be successful as a leader. Without the vested power to impose transactional process and procedure from the top, an individual cannot be an effective manager.

The simple truth is that these two different approaches to a challenge or problem must be interconnected and work together to achieve success. And if you need any more proof as to the veracity of this conclusion, all you need to do is look at the American political process.

If You Want to Know the Cost of Inconsistent Leadership Just Ask President Obama

Trust is the petri dish for success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize leadership.

As 2013 wound down, President Obama was pressing to conclude a troop-withdrawal agreement with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. The agreement – a pact that took over a year to negotiate – had actually been sought by Karzai to assure that at least a few American security troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The negotiations, often as byzantine as New Jersey politics, finally came to a conclusion in November and the agreement was subsequently approved by the Afghanistan parliament. But then Karzai began to ask for more concessions and refused to sign the very agreement he had proposed and negotiated. A frustrated Obama replied by telling Karzai that if he didn’t sign the agreement by the end of the year then all bets were off. He warned Karzai that he would pull out all American troops and suggested he could go fly a kite.

Then on Christmas Eve, The New York Times ran a story under the headline “U.S. Softens Deadline for Deal to Keep Troops in Afghanistan_warAfghanistan.” The gist of the story was that Karzai was thumbing his nose at Obama’s threat, because he had learned that he could. The Times article pointed out, “Instead of prompting Mr. Karzai to action, however, setting a boundary appears to have only reinforced his sense that American officials will back down if he refuses their demands – a lesson that has been repeated often over the past 12 years.” Of course, the end of the year has come and gone along with Obama’s threat, and he’s still pleading with Karzai to sign the agreement.

The Fatal Flaw of Leadership

This story is emblematic of the problems President Obama has been confronted with because of a flaw in his basic leadership style and skills. President Obama has the ability to garner the trust of followers, but he lacks the consistency of action that converts trust into effective leadership. Trust is the petri dish for leadership success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize the power to lead. A leader who does not exhibit the consistency needed to back up trust loses it and soon becomes impotent and irrelevant.


There is a general consensus that, at least from the standpoint of progress and influence, 2013 was the worst year of the Obama presidency. His approval rating at the end of the first year of his second term is at the lowest of any president since Herbert Hoover. It is not so much that people have lost trust that Obama aspires to do what is right for the most people, but rather, they have increasing trepidations as to his competency as a leader. In other words people don’t question his desire to do the right thing, but there are questions regarding his ability to do the right thing. This emerging suspicion of incompetency is the residue of a trail of inconsistent words and actions by President Obama.

The leadership style of President Obama that has led to confusing actions and sputtering results is mentioned here because it can serve as a real-life, live learning-lesson for anyone who seeks any level of power and leadership. Many try to discover the secrets to successful leadership in schools and books. While some patterns can be absorbed from both, the best way to learn is by observing the challenges, travails, successes and failures of those in real-time leadership roles. The truth is that the opportunity to learn what works and what fails is available all the time and at all levels. It is possible to learn from the CEO of the company and even our own supervisor, just as much as we can gain by observing the actions of those in high levels of political power. One important point to recognize is that it’s possible to gain perspective on leadership by scrutinizing those who fail, just as much as those who are successful.

Watching the Political Drama Unfold on Obama’s Reality TV Show

The learning lesson here is President Obama’s actions as a leader. If you recall, the first promise Obama made was for “Change You Can Believe In.” Even for those who disagreed, there was little doubt that Obama was sincere in his desire to bring about change in government. And the changes he proposed were things a majority of American voters could believe in: Health care reform, transparency in government, renewed opportunity for the middle class, a bipartisan approach to politics and a refocusing of American foreign policy were just some of the major changes promised by candidate Obama. This is the type of action – setting a vision for accomplishment – that a leader can use to begin to build trust. But what Obama forgot – and no leader ever should forget:

Never promise more than can be delivered and always deliver more than promised.

It is critical for a leader to understand the difference between change, which means making things different and the sense of inconsistency that emerges when the approach to change changes. Followers must be able to take leader at their word or their word becomes meaningless.

Once a leader has won the battle to bring about change, only consistent words and actions will encourage everyone to move away from the status quo and convention of tradition and accept the new idea. On the other hand, inconsistency of word and action in implementing any change not only reduces the trust and confidence of followers, but provides leverage for those who are opposed to the change to weaken or destroy it.

There are a number of examples of inconsistent leadership that have allowed Obama to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but none Obamamore so than Obamacare. There is no question that Obamacare was a bruising fight, but there also is no question that Obama won the fight. Obama’s victory in health care reform would not have been possible without the trust of the people. Unfortunately for Obama’s reputation as a leader, the overpromises and inconsistencies that have followed have all but eviscerated the victory. Not only has this sputtering implementation of change severely tarnished Obama’s credibility as a trusted and competent leader, it has also provided chum in the water for the many sharks opposed to change.

Nor has Obama’s inconsistent leadership been limited to domestic affairs. In Egypt and the rest of the Middle East Obama called for a change toward democracy. Millions rose up in a cry for democracy, but when some semblance of it was achieved in Egypt, with a democratically elected government taking power, Obama became inconsistent in his support. Certainly the elected government in Egypt was not what the United States would have preferred, but that is not the point. The issue is consistency. You are either “for democracy” – and all it brings – or you are not. A leader cannot be consistent only when things go their way. If a leader is to retain the trust and confidence of followers they must be consistently consistent. Does Obama really have the trust and confidence of the people of Egypt and the Middle East that he is fully committed to democracy in the region? What will this do to his power to influence change in the future?

How can you be a trusted, strong successful leader if there are consistent inconsistencies between what you say and what you do? The answer is that you can’t be and it is a good lesson to learn. Trust is the most underrated aspect of organizational leadership. The presence of trust makes any effort possible. The absence of trust corrodes from within until nothing is possible. And nothing decays trust faster than inconsistency.

And the Moral of the Story …

The secret to building trust is consistency of purpose, words and action. What many don’t realize is that it is the little inconsistencies that wear away trust and prevent the achievement of great things; especially change. Personal style sets the tone for trust and consistency. It does not mean a leader has to be a saint, but it does mean that a leader can’t be a saint one day and the incarnation of the devil the next. Building trust starts with the consistency of the leader, even if consistency means consistently being a jerk. If a leader is going to set a standard – any standard – they have to stand by it. Developing trust for a leader does not mean that the followers necessarily like the leader or agree with the actions, but it does mean that they can count on the leader’s consistency.

There are no short-cuts, ticks or gimmicks that can be used to build trust, but there is a simple philosophy a leader can follow to take the trust gained and use it as a powerful vehicle for success. It is a secret as simple as 1-2-3.

  1. The leader must clearly communicate the vision and objectives to be accomplished.
  2. The leader must always do what they say they are going to do.
  3. Finally, the leader does 1 and 2 again and again.

If you want to succeed as a leader you must begin by being a consistent trust builder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a Reason Why Politicians Disappoint Us as Leaders

Politics Calls for Coyness While Leadership Demands Boldness

There is a growing number of formerly passionate Obama enthusiasts who are expressing disappointment about his leadership abilities. And it is this discontent – not the dismal state of the economy – that could become the primary threat to his reelection.

Disconsolate supporters see Obama as someone who had promised to change the system, but instead has been neutered by it. Probably the most telling evidence of Obama’s reduced cache of leadership is the “before-and-after” portrait that is emerging. Before Obama took office he was being favorably compared to Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But now after a couple years of observation, there are loud whispers suggesting that he is more like a graduate of the Jimmy Carter School of failed leadership.

Should we be surprised? Not really.

Those who crafted the structure of our government installed at its core an unambiguous “separation of powers.” The intent of this construction was to thwart strong leadership; especially strong executive leadership. Having recently risked their very lives in an effort to throw off the yoke of British monarchy, the Founding Fathers were paranoid about any government in America that even hinted at strong executive leadership. (Most of the Founding Fathers believed that the elected legislature should be the preeminent power in the government and even proposed that the executive branch should be made up of a rotating “committee” of five members.)

As a result, the leadership performance of Obama should be viewed more as the norm than an exception. Still, this does not absolve Obama of his lackluster performance. After all, it was he who created the expectation that he was the exception—not the norm. Typical politicians promise only to “fix the system.” Obama, on the other hand, bravely promised to change the system. Even though the system needed change (and still does), implementing change is a formidably tall order, because the system itself is structured to resist change; and despite what most people will say, they are uncomfortable with change.

Looking Back in History

It could be argued that in the history of our country only three presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt – exhibited the leadership qualities needed to actually change the system. Lincoln, of course, eliminated the system of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt used anti-trust litigation (to get around Congress) and consumer protection legislation to tilt the focus of government from economic laissez faire to a more balanced “free market” approach. FDR redefined the very nature of government by implementing an economic and social services “safety net” as a responsibility of government.

Looking back on these changes now, they are seen as visionary and necessary. The continuation of slavery would surely have led to the dissolution of the union. TR’s (at right)  bully pulpit regulation of business and the breakup of monopolies opened up economic opportunity for millions and set the stage for American economic superiority. FDR’s expansion of government services, along with the adoption of social safety nets, i.e. Social Security, saved the American economic system from collapsing in on itself.

But here’s the important takeaway: Each and every one of these changes was met with passionate, vitriolic debate and resistance. The most consistent criticism was that each of these presidents had exceeded their authority and that their actions were unconstitutional. And indeed much of this constitutional criticism was correct, as several pieces of legislation forced by FDR were later ruled unconstitutional, but only after they had served their purpose. Moreover, despite withering criticism, each of these presidents understood that tinkering with a broken system using “tweaks” and “fixes” would not do; in order to save the system, the system itself needed to be restructured.

These presidents were successful in their efforts and are recognized today as outstanding leaders for two reasons: they offered bold solutions to the problems of the country and went directly to the people for support. And therein is the problem with Obama’s leadership. His words were bold and his connection with the people was electric, but his actions have been anything but. Obama’s election as the first African-American president is clear evidence of his ability to connect with and inspire people, but the most often refrain heard from those who voted for him is, “Where is the Obama we voted for?”

Once in office, Obama fell in lockstep with other politicians who game the system, rather than change the game. Obama may take credit for passing health care reform, but he abdicated to Congress the structure and design of a system that turned into an ill-defined monstrosity that no one seems to like.

To compound the problem, Obama lobbied Congress and not the people for its passage. As a result, the majority of people never understood or supported his efforts. Obama may not have succeeded, but he would have exhibited stronger leadership if he had presented his own bold plan for health care reform and then gone directly to the people to explain and solicit their support.

Entering office at the most frightening moment of the economic crisis, Obama acquiesced to the desires of a Congress dominated by moneyed interests to “stimulate” the economy by pouring a trillion dollars into the very institutions – banks, investment firms, insurance companies and poorly managed corporations – that caused the crisis. It was folly – not bold leadership – to believe that these companies would put the money into the economy and not in their own pockets. As FDR did with his New Deal, bold leadership would have been to “bailout” the people, not the corporations. (Oh I forgot, Mitt Romney tells us corporations are people too!)

Still Another Painful Example

The most recent disgusting and frustrating debate over extension of the national debt limit is another example of the opportunity for bold leadership gone begging for want of a father. Rather than allowing a broken system to painfully grind out a sausage of solution that satisfied no one, a bold leader would have taken daring action and gone to the people for support. (FDR did not have the authority to close the banks to stem fear of failure, but he did.)

Obama could have boldly stepped up and invoked 14th Amendment provisions to unilaterally raise the debt limit (President Harry Truman did it once during his presidency after Congress was unable to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling). At the same time, he could have offered specific, dramatic plans to curb spending and reduce the national debt and then taken his case directly to the people. If he had, the short-term problem would have been solved and the real debate defined. But he didn’t.

Sure, critics would have howled in complaint and there would have been cries that Obama had exceeded his authority and that his actions were unconstitutional, but there would have been no questions regarding his capacity for leadership.

And the Moral of the Story …

It is no coincidence that most of the heroes of leadership come from the business or military sectors of society. Companies and armies are structured with a top-down mentality that fosters and expects strong leadership from the top. Leaders still must lead and deliver, but they start with the authority to do so. On the other hand, the American political system is structured with a bottom-up mentality combined with a natural trepidation for strong leaders. This creates the conundrum of the people seeking strong, bold leaders while the very nature of our political system seeks to limit and suppress the power and authority of our leaders.

As such, we should not be surprised or disappointed when politicians use opinion polls so they can tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to hear. Successful politicians deal in platitudes not plans. They talk broadly of change but propose only “fixes” because they know that even if elected, they lack the formal power to implement real change.

The history of our country has shown that it is extremely rare for an individual to have the ability to be successful working within the political system AND to have the boldness of leadership that allows them to actually change the system. Because of this, most politicians survive by pandering to our most base expectations. President Obama is obviously a successful politician, but he created a problem for himself when instead of pandering to our expectations, he sought to raise them by promising to be a game changer; and thus far has failed to prove he has the ability to do so.