Many people who attached their vote to a ship called "Hope" in the last presidential election are wondering what happened to candidate Obama -- the man so in touch with his fellow Americans. Was it once again all just an act -- a masterful vote-gaining strategy?
That would be a harsh characterization, but some days it's hard not to wonder how close it is to the truth. Aside from the disappointments of promised change taking far longer than expected and of people who brought the country to the brink of economic ruin being invited into the administration to help run things, President Obama continually loses public support by distancing himself in stance, words and body language from many of the very people who have looked to him for new leadership.
What is the problem here?
Is it Obama's view of leadership? Does he believe in running for president as a man of the people but leading by keeping citizens and the media at a distance? Is he attempting to portray himself as a throwback to the bygone era of the "great man" leader, as if the complex nature of today's problems could actually be addressed alone? Does he think people expect him to have all the answers and to be responsible for everyone's actions?
Is it a question of trust? Is he unwilling to demonstrate -- rather than merely insist over and over -- that he is not sitting on his hands but that he has gathered the best experts in an endeavor to spare the Gulf of Mexico from continued devastation? Does he distrust those people? Is he so wary of a Brownie event on his watch that he distances himself from people who might not be as adept as they appear? Or is the distance intended to convey control from above?
Which brings us to this: Is it elitism? Could it be that President Obama's Ivy League training and penchant for selecting people with that very same pedigree for high positions perpetuate a consensual sense of superiority? Do they think there is no problem they can't master on their own? "My people," "my administration" -- possessive pronouns abound to suggest this may be the case. It reflects an us-vs.-them mentality, when it doesn't simply sound like a misguided sense of power.
Has he even considered taking a page from President Clinton's "man of the people" approach or Admiral Thad Allen's "tell-it- as-I-see-it" style of communication? Does he think that as president he really is no longer one of us and that he will only lose credibility by appearing to be so? Standing alone at the podium appearing to have the answers, telling us he's working hard and sounding perturbed with doubters undermines his credibility by not being the president he promised.
No matter how often President Obama asserts his intension to make sure British Petroleum pays every last fisherman and ameliorates all environmental and economic damage, no matter his assurances that the buck stops with him (remember "The Decider?"), President Obama is conveying an outmoded view of leadership that rejects broad teamwork in favor of intellectual or experiential superiority. Being at the podium alone just exacerbates the disconnect problem.
This isn't the time for the Lone Ranger leader. Those advising the president to get out in front of the problem have neglected to notice that his trying to appear to do so is actually part of the problem. The Kennedy administration response to the Cuban missile crisis was a team effort -- a highly visible one. So, too, was the Tylenol tampering case -- still a classic in business schools.
Our culture encourages individualism and standing above the crowd. But we also respect people who put aside notions of glory, self-interest and even self-sacrifice to reach a team goal. President Obama should not try to be an oil disaster expert, but rather clearly demonstrate that he knows where to find them. That's what effective leaders do. They aren't too busy or distracted to bother with the press or people in pain because they know their team is hard at work.
Effective leaders find experts who complement their strengths - men and women with exceptional track records, no matter their pedigree, and they draw upon that expertise until workable solutions are found.
Leadership isn't a characteristic you have or you don't. It isn't something you memorize and apply. You don't win the vote and become a leader. It's a range of behaviors more or less suited to the problem at hand. And the problem at hand in the Gulf doesn't call for a leader who stands alone at a podium day after day telling us with considerable exasperation that he has things under control. He doesn't. No one could. If President Obama doesn't learn this now, he won't be "in charge" for long.
Dr. Reardon also blogs at bardscove.
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