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Obama: the Natural Born Leader

Posted: 07/10/09 03:19 PM ET

As the representative of General Motors' new majority owner -- the U.S. government -- and the chief officer of the major banks in the US, President Barack Obama has become a de facto chairman of sorts and can now add 'Captain of Industry' 'to his resume. Although Obama was not elected nor even appointed to these roles, his leadership style is perfectly suited for this complex challenge and many of the other similarly tangled problems facing the country today.

Obama is what we in our recent research on the various success archetypes among leaders at the top of their fields, have come to define as "a Natural Born Leader." That phrase is not new. However, we believe we've defined the finer points in a new way and that President Obama exemplifies that definition.

On the campaign trail, even his opponents recognized that Obama had an awesome power to inspire, a telltale trait of a Natural Born Leader. Those who have dismissed Obama as a superficial orator -- satisfying on the stump but lacking in true leadership -- have missed the point entirely: leadership by inspiration is a major -- perhaps the major -- aspect of Obama's success archetype. People who characterized Obama's Cairo recent speech as "just public relations," don't understand that for Natural Born Leaders, inspiration is a valid product in and of itself.

And by leading through inspiration, leaders like Obama can focus on that big-picture view from above -- no fear of heights there. They thrive on high, unlikely to be easily frustrated or intimidated by complexly hierarchical organizations, like the federal government.

Moreover, Natural Born Leaders believe in the power of process, but are fully comfortable delegating authority over that process to others. Obama has shown an early fondness for policy czars with bulging portfolios of responsibility -- even recently creating a new
one to fight cybercrime. Obama appointed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to totally restructure the financial system almost. Leaders like Obama see the success of their delegates as their own and have no fear of rivals.

For many Americans, Obama's leadership style is why he was such a welcome change. While Obama is supremely self-confident in the power of process -- and in his own power to be the master of that process, George W. Bush was supremely self-confident merely in his goals.
Admittedly, many Americans shared Bush's goals, such as "winning the war on terror." But when Bush seemed unable to explain how to achieve those goals and the precise measures of success, people lost patience with Bush and his party.

George W. Bush's success archetype is what we've dubbed an Independence Seeker, who always needs new challenges and lacks patience for complex hierarchies, implementation or accountabilities. Independence Seekers can do great things. But they can also go too far (declaring "Mission Accomplished" prematurely) and might not be the best fit for the Oval Office. And Obama's transparency and clarity felt fresh after George W. Bush's blustering (or worse) about the "whys" and blundering about the "hows" in many matters military and otherwise.

So, last November, it was in direct contrast to Independence Seekers Bush and his proxy Sen. John "maverick" McCain that Obama had such appeal. And the most recent New York Times/CBS poll shows Obama maintains a 63 percent job-approval rating -- which Gallup noted was much better than his three immediate predecessors at the same point in their first terms. (Natural Born Leaders tend to inspire loyalty of feeling; they don't have to demand it.)

Yet there are also substantial challenges that Obama will need to surmount because of being a Natural Born Leader. The New York Times' poll analysis noted "a distinct gulf exists between Mr. Obama's overall standing and how some of his key initiatives are viewed." Andcritics on both sides of the aisle have said he is taking on too much; even Vice President Joe Biden teased the president for his alleged messiah complex at the Gridiron dinner in March. "He can't be here tonight, because he's busy getting ready for Easter," Biden told the crowd, "He thinks it's about him.

Therein lies perhaps the greatest risk of Obama's leadership style: Natural Born Leaders put personal priorities last -- even when those personal priorities could benefit others. Obama did not run for president only to oversee stress tests on financial service firms or the negotiation of bond covenants with carmakers.

Until his speech in Cairo and his recent initiative on reforming health care, the President had focused largely on crisis management, doing little in the way of leadership to advance his pet
"legacy-making" policy issues from campaign trail. So from a political point of view, he needs to hit it out of the ballpark with results and soon, on health care in particular, to show what he can do beyond being responsive and reactive.

How the president balances his response to crises on the one hand and legacy policy initiatives on the other will likely determine the success of his presidency and the outcome of an incumbency election in 2012 and whether Obama the Natural Born Leader can be re-born as a strong two-term president.



Michael J. Berland and Douglas E. Schoen are co-authors of "What Makes You Tick? How Successful People Do It -- And What You Can Learn from Them" (HarperCollins, June 2009). As partners at Penn, Schoen & Berland, the leading strategic political and corporate communications company, they conducted research for the world's top brands and political leaders in more than 80 countries.