So, Is President Obama a weak leader?

October 26, 2014

President Obama has received continued criticism for being a weak leader. His military actions against IS in Iraq and Syria are now being used to demonstrate the contrary argument. I suggest that such assessments need to be made with great care

Popular and political judgements of a leader’s competence need to be tested carefully. Too often they are reactions to a single critical incident.

Critical incidents may not be all that critical

A news story often follows a ‘critical incident’. For example, the IS made headlines over brutal videoed execution of an American hostage. President Obama said at a Press Conference that there was no American strategy in place for dealing with the emerging Islamic State. The  remark  was widely taken to illustrate the President’s weakness as a leader.

Was it weak leadership to speak the truth?

A leader is expected to offer reassurance. Obama’s sound-bite was uncomfortable to hear. It could be used in Media Training as an example of a remark that might have been better expressed. An example of a weakly-expressed point. But was it weak leadership to speak the truth? Would it have been any better to say “We know exactly what to do, as you will learn very shortly” ?

Was it strong leadership to launch the air campaign against IS?

British politicians appear to be believe so. They debated the issue and voted overwhelmingly in favour of supplying air support in Iraq (where the new regime requested military support against IS) Here is where some careful testing of ideas is required. One view is that a strong leader is decisive and ‘sends signals of commitment and willingness to act’ unilaterally if necessary.

There seems a wide consensus that the initiative has little chance of a simple successful ending without ‘boots on the ground‘.

Yet there has been a remarkable level of regional and international support of at least a symbolic kind.

Strong leadership?

And the question of what is strong leadership remains a matter of perspective.  If strong is understood as having the power to bring about desired change, President Obama is in a relatively weak position for someone in the role generally perceived as that of the most powerful political leader in the world.


Executive powers and creative license

July 31, 2014


Republican plans are announced to sue President Obama over abuse of executive powers. They are addressing the broader issue of leadership action and creative license

Effective leadership action often involves a creative insight. It may surprise and shock opponents into a claim the the action exceeds the legitimate powers granted.

This appears to be the claim behind the Republican move from the House of Representatives which was passed acrimoniously along party lines this week [July 2014] Speaker John Boehner denied it was a party political act, but one taken in defense of the Constitution. President Obama dismissed the action as a stunt.

Every President since George Washington

Every President since George Washington has deployed executive orders. It seems Obama is no more prolific than his predecessor and likely to be less active in this respect than the famously hands-off Ronald Reagan.

But that’s politics. Each side can make a case that is likely to be accepted by its supporters. The defense of democratic freedoms stumbles on.


“We the people”. Where’s the evidence that transformational leadership works?

November 25, 2013

Dr John Keane

Since the 1980s, leadership texts place transformational leadership at the centre of the new leadership movement. Is the theory supported in practice?

Like many leadership teachers, my lectures refer the new leadership movement as the major change in theoretical thinking. It was introduced around the 1980s, and places emphasis on vision, innovative change, and the transformation of organizations and individuals. It succeeded in challenging the older ideas in which leadership was rather easily muddled up with effective management plus a dash of mysterious charisma and inspiration. Early work frequently referred to John F Kennedy whose death fifty years ago we remember this week [Nov 21st 2013].

I’ll start with examining the possibility of transformational change through political leaders in the west who are considered transformational.

The Thatcher vision

The 1980s in the UK were the Thatcher years. She would be the most obvious example of a visionary leader. The Telegraph offered a succinct and plausible definition: “to release the repressed aspirations of millions of ordinary people”. Advocates of transformational leadership could argue that Margaret Thatcher helped change the aspirations of millions of ordinary people. Others would argue that the transformation has not resulted in more noble aspirations or a more widespread capacity to reflect on personal beliefs and values. That is hardly a surprising conclusion, but arguably it lies at the heart of transformational leadership’s capacity to transform people as well as systems.

The Reagan Vision

Margaret Thatcher’s political soul mate in America was Robert Reagan. He held steadfastly to a vision of a world in which the ‘evil empire’ of the [then] Soviet Union would be defeated and transformed into a democratic society. The Soviet Union did crumble. Again, the vision has been partially fulfilled in the structural sense, but it is hard detect evident that the legacy of Reagan has transformed beliefs.

The transformation of societies and organizations

By the end of the decade, Francis Fukuyama had declared a victory of democracy through the advance of science and rationality and decline of dictatorships. His prediction now seems somewhat exaggerated.

Fast forward

In America, the beliefs of “we the people” today seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan. Efforts to achieve the changes in President Obama’s “can do” vision stall in what is increasingly seem as a dysfunctional political system.

In the UK this year at her death [2013] Margaret Thatcher was seen as a towering figure who achieved structural changes that many of her political opponents are pleased enough not to attempt to reverse.

The people of Russia appear to be ‘untransformed’ enough to prefer the old style strong-man leadership of Putin over the Social Democratic ideas of the 1980s which appear to have been President Gorbachev’s more transformational vision.

In America, the beliefs of “we the people” seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan.

The non-transformation of the people

I listen a lot to the publicly-expressed views of leaders. I hear how their visions will transform the broader groups whom they seek to influence. I listen to the views and beliefs expressed by those broader groups.

Should we have a vision non-proliferation movement?

Political leaders speak as one with our business leaders in expressing their visions. Political and business leaders are failing to win the confidence and trust of their constituents. Perhaps we need a vision non-proliferation movement.

The author is a writer and researcher into leadership theory and practice. The views expressed are his own.


The Syrian crisis: Study leadership decisions not leadership styles

September 16, 2013

The complexities of leadership make assessments of a leader’s style less effective than assessments of a leader’s most critical decisions and dilemmas

The story of Syria’s internal conflicts and external attempts at intervention remains complex and obscure. I want to advocate its analysis through a study of leadership dilemmas and decision-making.

My executive students are familiar with the principle through applying it to current leadership cases. Here is how the approach may be effective in understanding some of the complexities of the Syrian crisis [as of September 2013].

Media treatments

Media treatments are arriving at a narrative or interpretive story of events in Syria. In the narrative, the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad faces increasing attempts to overthrow his regime by a complex set of internal interests. The American President Barack Obama would like to intervene, preferably with support from the international community. The Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the forces opposing Assad are waging war against a legally constituted leader.

The nature of narrative

Narrative by its nature is interpretative. It implies a belief in a story. I like to think of the story as a map or interpretation of a real-world reality. The Russian, American and Syrian maps differ. The real-world events involve thousands of people being killed, millions being displaced. If the narratives are maps, the conflict is the territory represented in the maps.

Dilemmas

News stories provide us with the maps. One way to examine them is to consider evidence of the most important dilemmas facing leaders. That way we glimpse the leadership processes better. For example, an excellent analysis in the Wall Street journal [updated and uploaded 15 Sept 2013] gives a Western map of current events. It also suggests the dilemmas facing President Obama.

Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place…

[D]uring a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.

Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.

Map-reading

Before I can assess or ‘map-test’ the ‘rightness’ of decisions, I need to ‘map-read’ thoroughly. The story suggests a critical dilemma. Mr Obama [it says] wants to reduce the U.S.’s role as global cop, but finds himself ‘lurching into launching a strike against Syria’. The dilemma, and the Presidential decision-making start to resolve with ‘the unintended outcome’ of the public remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and the reaction by his Russian counterpart.

Map-testing

This interpretation of events can be tested. Kerry’s statement is the most public. That it was ad-libbed and not offical policy is a piece of map-making or interpretation by the WSJ. Mr Lavrov’s reply is reported but not public. Subsequent events give it, and the narrative or map some plausibility.

Map-making

The events may have helped President Obama re-make his map to increase the chances of a non-military approach to Syria. The debate continues whether this is ‘true’; whether it was influenced by the decision of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to withhold support for military action; whether The Russian position and that of President Bashar al-Assad are to be trusted. But these become speculations. By sticking with dilemmas and decisions we avoid the morass we find ourselves in when dealing with such speculation.

I have chosen to examine the dilemmas facing President Obama. A richer picture (or map) emerges only after examination of other maps, other decisions, other leaders.


The leadership dilemma: On being right and appearing weak

September 2, 2013

One repeated theme in the desperate series of events taking place in Syria is the dilemma facing leaders embroiled in them. Politically, so often doing what a leader believes to be right risks public perceptions of being a week leader

The struggles are clear if we look at the behaviours in the UK last week [August 24-30th] of Prime Minister Cameron and the leader of the Opposition, David Miliband as well as the impact on those of President Obama.

Early in the week, the bloodshed in Syria escalated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians apparently from a chemical weapons attack. President Obama had indicated earlier that use of chemical weapons would pass a ‘red line’ resulting in intervention by the USA. After the attack, the White House indicated that some military response would occur.

The House is recalled

Mr Cameron returns from holiday early and recalls MPs to the House for a motion backing direct action against the perpetrators of the chemical attack, and implicitly supporting the imminent US actions. Mr Cameron was at one with many Western commentators that the Syrian regime was responsible and that action to respond to ‘discourage and degrade’ future use of chemical weapons in Syria. Initially Mr Miliband supported the principle of military involvement. Both leaders also took pains to recognize the intervention in Iraq by Tony Blair was increasingly seen as ill-judged, and the public would need reassuring of the possibility of a limited strike without unintended longer-term consequences. As I write those words it seems inconceivable that Cameron and Miliband believed the military case that such a ‘hygienic’ strike was possible.

In a few days, the recalled members of Parliament had made it clear to their respective leaders that many of them would not support military action. Both back-pedalled. Miliband found a form of retreat that called for time, which Cameron did not seem to have if the American action were to be supported. Cameron proposes a watered-down motion seeking agreement in principle on military action, and promising further debate before actual action.

Defending the indefensible

Cameron skilfully almost defended the indefensible. Miliband had a bad attack of first night nerves. The subsequent debate was at times muddled. Some speakers seem to have stuck to their original drafts ignoring how the motion had changed. The mood of the house however was of individuals with honourable intentions to support or oppose according to conscience or argument, regardless of leadership intentions. Enough conservatives opposed the motion for it to defeated. Immediately, Cameron said he ‘got it’. There would be no UK support for US military action.

The American response

A few days later President Obama indicated that the intended action would be delayed, following a proposal put to his own legislators. It was widely interpreted as a response to the UK political debate

Doing right and appearing weak

What do I mean by ‘doing right and appearing weak’? The three leaders changed their positions during the period of a week. Obama had made the commitment to act in Syria if the regime crossed the red line of using chemical weapons. He believed he had the moral right to do so, and the support of the American public. He was risking appearing week by delaying. Now pollsters suggest the public considers him even weaker, although several commentators have recognized that his search for consensus in and outside The US is attempting to avoiding unintended consequences of action. [One defense was made by an earlier politician, ‘when events change, I change my mind, what do you do?’. The issue is more how often the leader changes]

Mr Cameron is judged weak when he tried to seek cross-party support for military action by offering a second vote so that in principle he could support any American action.

Mr Miliband quickly learned that he could not deliver opposition support to a military venture. It may have been a cunning plan on his part, but if so he looked thoroughly miserable as he spoke in the house to his new position.

It is rather easy to see how seeking consensus, and changing one’s position are seen as signs of a weak leader. Seeing what is the right course of action is altogether trickier.


If God sends a hurricane, what should you pray for?

August 29, 2011

As Hurricane Irene headed towards the Eastern seaboard of the United States, President Obama cut down on his customary symbolic delivery of his message to the people facing the storm. It was a time of practical action ahead of religious observations

I was listening to a radio interview three thousand miles from the action, a few hours before the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irene on America’s eastern seaboard. President Obama had spoken gravely of the historic dangers facing some 55 million Americans. His instructions were urgent and precise. Prepare. Evacuate vulnerable low-lying areas. Treat the instructions from local and State officials as mandatory.

An Obama speech is typically crafted to contain a rational message and a style or signature which signals his emotional commitments. The imagery implies his religion, love of country, and his cultural roots. In this speech, the rational substantially outweighed the symbolic.

Meanwhile on Coney Island

I would not have noticed the way the speech addressed the situational rather than the emotional factors in play, if I had not then heard the words of the Pastor of a Coney Island church. The name brought memories of a rattling train ride out to Brooklyn, NY for its famous Atlantic beach and amusement centers, and later a minor league Baseball team appropriately enough known as the Brooklyn Cyclones. Now I was listening to the words of a community leader preoccupied with the practical. Yes, Coney Island faced particular problems being geographically and socially vulnerable. People were preparing themselves, clearing out their cellars, boarding up, leaving their homes if necessary.

But what about prayer?

There was a pause which was filled when the reporter asked “what about prayer?” The question caught me by surprise. Maybe it caught the pastor by surprise as well. His hesitation was palpable. Yes of course. God answers our prayers.

What I heard got me thinking. President and pastor were focused on the immediate and practical needs of their people. You could say that it was a nice example of situational leadership. Thanksgiving and spiritual nurturing comes afterwards.

And I also wondered, if God sends a hurricane, just what should you pray for?

Acknowledgement

Image from internet reporting site Cleveland.com shows NBC reporter Peter Alexander attempting to broadcast from Coney Island boardwalk as Hurricane Irene passes close by


Charisma and Transformational Leadership Revisited

September 15, 2010
Statue of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. The ...

Image via Wikipedia

 

The ancient concept of the charismatic leader remains in everyday use. It was explained by Weber, and partly modernised as transformational leadership, but the older idea retains much of its potency

In 2004-5 while writing Dilemmas of Leadership, co-author Murray Clark and I had many discussions about the old idea of charisma, and the modern concept of transformational leadership. It was clear that the style of the transformational leader had some similarities with that of the charismatic leader described for at least two millennia.

The Taming of Charisma

We suggested that the newer concept had ‘tamed’ charisma. By that we meant that charisma in its pre-modern form had too much that was mystical about it. The twentieth century was a period in which such older ideas were being swept aside by advances in the newer branches of knowledge such as psychology and sociology.

Bernard Bass had influenced thinking about leadership, moving attention away from the difficult question of what a leader is, to the more scientifically amenable question of what a leader is observed to do. Maybe, we suggested, the idea of transformational leadership was not so much a radical move forward in thinking, but an attempt to bring charisma up to date by stripping it of its mystique, replacing that with the rationality accompanying a factorial analysis.

Elements of the Old Remained

Elements of charisma could be detected in the new formulation. For example, the objectified factor of idealized influence of the transformational leader was acknowledged as an aspect of charismatic leadership, as was inspirational motivation. And the factor of individualised consideration might be seen as a ‘taming’ of the more mystical skills of a charismatic leader at makingleaving  each follower feel  special and uniquely valued.

One of the pioneers of transformational leadership, James MacGregor Burns, drew on his study of President Kennedy. But Kennedy is also frequently as a charismatic leader. In the run up to his election as President, the same labelling was being applied to Barack Obama.

Charisma and Its Redress

In the first edition of Dilemmas we entitled the relevant chapter ‘Charisma and its Redress.’ The reference is to the work of Seamas Heaney and his book, The Redress of Poetry. In it, he explains that poetry always compensates for popular unthinking opinion. The redress of poetry is its power to challenge conventional beliefs. We were suggesting that transformational leadership offered a redress, a compensation for the age-old assumptions about the magical nature of charisma. Of course, Weber had got there before us, and with far a richer analysis of charisma. He had seen charisma as becoming less suited to modern organisational structures and their leadership. 

Charismatic Leadership

Since the first edition of Dilemmas, there have been further contributions to our understanding of charismatic leadership.  John Potts wrote a particularly thoughtful study from a historical perspective. There is plenty of scope for further reflection. Our earlier suggestion followed Burns and pointed to the dilemma of empowerment associated with charisma. We noted “we are left with the impression that Burns now feels that such a view of leadership and power is inadequate for dealing with the dilemmas posed by transformational leadership. [ DOL, pp91, 93]. ”

Revisiting the Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership

It seems to me now that charisma, far from being tamed by the more modern notion of transformational leadership, is co-existing very nicely with it. Despite attempts to welcome in a post-charismatic era, it fits nicely with popular conceptions of the specialness of such figures as Obama, and sporting leaders such as Jose Mourinho, and of course the still-potent idealisation of Nelson Mandela (witness the retelling in the book and film Invictus).

Work in Progress

My own work in progress is taking a closer look at the style of these charismatic leaders and how it deals with a dilemma of retaining specialness while conveying the impression of being one of and at one with the tribe. From such a perspective, we begin to see another dilemma of being isolated from (protected from?) information that might require a more rational relationship with the technical over the symbolic aspects of leadership.