THE BLOG

Improviser in Chief

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

David Brooks' December 4 column in the NY Times praises the Obama administration for its analytical approach to governance. Like Brooks, I believe Obama team is making decent policy decisions given the scenarios with which it is presented. As criticism erupts like wildfire from all points of the political compass, a team of skilled players makes strong choices, responds swiftly to circumstances, and takes responsibilities for its actions.

Brooks writes: "...all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them."

There is a ton of truth in these words.

The mistake we in the audience tend to make is assuming there's only one pair of hands, Obama's, working with a completely malleable ball of clay. Obama, says Brooks, seems to understand that not only has most of the clay hardened into shapes sculpted by the hands of others, his own hands may not even be the most influential in shaping it. And it would be a mistake for Obama and his team to think or act otherwise.

The rest of Brooks' column, however, expresses a mystifying lack of comprehension at how the Obama team rolls. For example, Brooks laments the discontinuity between 'Campaign Obama' and 'White House Obama," when in fact there is no break at all between the two. A skilled leader like Obama plays more than one role, and communicates on more than one wavelength.

Breaking it down further:

Brooks claims that "The Obama campaign, like all presidential campaigns, was built on a series of fictions." Nothing could be further from the truth. The Obama campaign succeeded because, from the Iowa caucuses through the McCain debates, it built on the reality of what it would take to win the election. In describing the Obama campaign narrative as fictions, Brooks recognizes only the cosmetic level of communication, and fails to see that the Obama campaign dealt in emotional and meta communication that resonated more deeply and truthfully with voters than any purely informational (i.e. cosmetic) campaign promise or platform plank could have.

Second, Brooks expresses surprise at "how enthusiastically [Obama] has made the transition" from campaign mode to governing mode. "...he seems to vastly prefer the grays of governing to the simplicities of the campaign," writes Brooks. Brooks had the ringside seat for the campaign, I did not. Still, what Brooks fails to see that's right in front of his schnozz is that a leader like Obama expresses no preference for one role (campaigner) over another (POTUS). Nor does such a leader insist on having the same role and status (e.g. The Decider) from scene to scene. (Brooks on the West Point speech: "Obama...cloaked himself...in modesty.") Leadership consists of embracing the role that best serves the scene in which one finds oneself, and accepting that one's status can change, too, role to role.

The "enthusiastic" transition that takes Brooks by surprise is no surprise when one sees that it is bookended by enthusiastic (read: committed, energetic, emotional) campaigning and enthusiastic (read: thoughtful, analytical, balanced) governing. Roles may change. Essential character does not. Enthusiasm, be it for legislating, speechmaking, or shooting hoops, cannot be unbundled from Obama's essential character.

Finally, Brooks makes his weakest statement of all about the Obama method: "Barring a scientific breakthrough, we can't merge Obama's analysis with George Bush's passion." Setting aside the fact that Bush's passions tended toward such unproductive games as Assigning Nicknames and Playing Cowboy, the breakthrough Brooks ignores has been made. It is called improvisation and it is, in fact, a scientifically and educationally sound method of inquiry. It has been designed to merge the discipline and structure of analysis with the liberating force of passion.

Improvisation is spontaneous collaboration designed to achieve an agreed-upon objective (my definition). The foundation forimprovisation as practiced today was established in the 1930s on Chicago's Southside by a couple of schoolteachers, Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin, as a way of educating children from multi-cultural backgrounds. It is a way of communicating that transcends language; a way of collaborating that transcends ego; a way of conducting a dialogue with one's community. It is a way practiced with precision by Barack Obama.

Improvisation--which would not be adapted for comedy theater until the late 1950s by Spolin's son, Paul Sills, who co-founded Second City--was conceived in the same Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago where Milton Friedman would later develop monetarist theories that shaped the global economy; where Enrico Fermi led a team that built the world's first nuclear reactor under the University of Chicago football stadium; where Upton Sinclair exposed the toxic practices of the Chicago meat packing industry; where Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and many others created the Chicago Blues sound. Before he became President, Barack Obama lived in this neighborhood. It is where he taught, and where, as a community organizer, he began his dialogue with the voters.

By improvising the narrative instead of putting all its energy into engineering events or spinning perceptions to match a script, the Obama team can deal more effectively with real world events as they happen. Events do not have to be filtered through the lenses of expectation or disappointment. The script does not have to be re-written after the fact so the original authors can save face. There is no time or dialogue wasted on "what ought to be" or "what might have been." The only thing that matters to an improviser, the focus of all energy, all effort, all focus, is "what is." Because of this, the Obama team, as Brooks correctly observes in his column, "...is able to adjust and respond more quickly than...the Bush administration ever did." That is how improvisers roll.


Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers--Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and the co-founder of GameChangers, LLC.