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Leadership in the Time of Obama

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President Obama is today negotiating for his political life. The pundits claim he is "all-in" on the health care bill, and that its defeat would be the practical end to his presidency. So here's a pop-quiz.

Should Obama:
  • A. Command and control - Use every ounce of his power, information and authority to threaten, coerce, demand, bully, expose and publicly humiliate resistant members of Congress to get them to pass the bill;

  • B. Take the high road - Model exemplary, collaborative, win-win leadership by listening carefully to the needs and concerns of the bill's opponents, finding common ground on the priority objectives, and uniting both parties and the country around a common vision and purpose;

  • C. Build bottom-up support - Reach-out to as many constituent groups as possible, including his base, his younger internet community, his allies in business, media and politics, as well as his opponents, and plead, barter, beg, and ingratiate himself in order to mobilize them and secure their support for the bill;


  • D. Appease his opponents - Simply tolerate the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric and hyperbole of his opponents for now, give-in to them on their key demands, suck-up to them as much as possible, and quietly lay-in-wait for conditions to change and opportunities to present themselves where he can blithely sabotage them and derail their agenda.


  • E. Develop a strong BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) - Spend a considerable amount of time and energy developing a good Plan B, where he can still achieve his principle goals of insuring the uninsured, cutting healthcare costs, and improving standards, but he can do so without going through the legislature (i.e. working directly with the medical industry) and ideally lessen his dependence on Congress in these matters.


  • F. None of the above.

  • G. All of the above.

Of course, the correct response to this is D. And B. And A, C and E (in other words, G). President Obama must employ every strategy available to him -- hard and soft, public and private, short-term and long-term -- to achieve his objectives on healthcare. It is both a practical and moral imperative.

This is smart power. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has been advocating the use of smart power, a combination of hard power (military, economic, etc.) and soft power (moral, cultural, etc.) in our foreign policy for years. And both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have taken to this idea recently. But now is the time to employ a similar strategy on important domestic issues -- like healthcare.

Research has found that, although many of our leaders tend to get stuck in one approach when negotiating conflict (usually domination), our more effective leaders are more nimble. They read situations more carefully, consider their short and longer-term objectives, and then employ a variety of different strategies in order to increase the probabilities that their agenda will succeed. They know the difference between a temporary dispute and a long-term war. They know when to stay the course and when to change strategies. They recognize that good leadership requires both -- a sense of stability, vision and purpose, and the capacity to respond effectively to important changes in the landscape.

And this is what is needed to address our country's healthcare deficiencies today. President Obama must pressure, even coerce Democrats in congress to pass the bill, continue to model the high-road leadership he displayed at the healthcare summit, return to the assertive bottom-up coalition-building tactics of his campaign, tolerate and appease his opponents when necessary, and all the while be thinking long-term and developing alternative venues to advance healthcare reform if need be.

An environment as complex, volatile, and polarized as Washington is today requires adaptive leaders who employ smart power. Leaders who are masters at combining A through E above and employing networks of agents skilled in them all to move us forward. Here's hoping that our President, who is all-in, is using all of the above.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Organization and Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on faculty of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is currently working on a book with Dr. Ferguson on Smart Power.

Robert Ferguson, PhD, is a psychologist, executive coach and author.

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