10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Thinks Like a Leader, And Therefore Might Lose

With post-convention polls tightening, some even showing a lead for John McCain, the transom is abuzz with advice for Barack Obama. TV's talking heads press their guests; "What does he have to do?" Bloggers champion tactics that run the gamut from "Hit back now and hit back hard" to "Ignore Palin, just get back to inspiring people." Nearly every admonishment includes some call for Obama to cut to the chase. Simplify the speeches, they say. Chop down the answers into blurbs that would look good on a refrigerator magnet.

But what all these freelance campaign managers miss is this: Barack doesn't think that way. He's not a refrigerator magnet guy. He thinks like history's best leaders; viewing the issue at hand from several directions, assuming the discussion is supposed to produce insight or discovery, and speaking while honest analysis churns away on the inside. He doesn't do rote. So it's almost impossible for him to speak in sound bites because he doesn't think in sound bites. As a civil rights lawyer, a teacher of constitutional law, a state and US senator and - yes - a community organizer, Obama has spent his entire adult life pulling difficult issues apart to find the useful reality in them, then using that to plot the best course. That's Leaderthink. And when a Leaderthinker speaks, as the involuntary analysis whirs inside, the result can be wordy and overly complex. Hiding that complexity is almost impossible for some Leaderthinkers, like Obama. The armchair strategists are right about one thing, though. Thinking like a leader could cost him the election.

During World War II, American soldiers started to lightheartedly refer to themselves as grunts. Their kind of thinking, call it Gruntthink, was necessary for survival. The brave souls who huddled on Omaha Beach more than sixty-five years ago had well-defined challenges and few options in how to meet them. We've all heard veterans describe what was going through their minds on that day. "Keep your head down," they thought. "An inch at a time." "Suck it up and keep moving." "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition," all of which would look great stuck to a refrigerator. Those soldiers literally saved the world, against unimaginable odds, and they didn't get it done by picking apart the larger issues at play across the whole of Europe. If they had paused to consider the fine points, if they hadn't stuck to Gruntthink, my generation could well have grown up goose-stepping our asses off.

In that light, the crowds that Sarah Palin is drawing for McCain, who roar in response to slogans like "I will keep America safe!" and "You will know their names!" make perfect sense. We are, most of us, grunts after all (in the best sense of that word). We do our work, meet our challenges and move our lives forward mostly with the kind of suck-it-up determination that Gruntthink supports. "Another day, another dollar." "One day at a time." "Success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration." We get the slogans McCain dishes out because we use slogans to power ourselves through our own days.

So when McCain, in answer to pastor Rick Warren's question about how we address "evil," says "We defeat it!," mental refrigerators all over the country are instantly smothered. It doesn't matter that this is one of the stupidest answers to one of the most inane questions asked in this whole long, bloody campaign. We DEFEAT it? We defeat "eee-ville," like a comic-book superhero? Okay, if I'm on that beach, looking for a motto to fire me up, that might be as good a slice of Gruntthink as any. But it's not a plan, not a strategy, and it leaves open the gaping hole of a question, HOW?

In the Great Saddleback Show Trial, Warren served up another McCain-ready doozy: "When does life begin?" Dutifully, Johnny Mac stamped out the magnet, "At the moment of Conception," to waves of audience approval. A Gruntthink bulls eye. (I guess I missed his long, alternate-universe career as a biologist.)

But let's go back to the Normandy invasion for a moment, and see how Gruntthink works in a leadership situation. Imagine Eisenhower and the other planners as they sat down to begin developing the strategy for the invasion:

"Gentlemen," says Ike, "we've got to keep our heads down, and go at this an inch at a time. We have to suck it up and keep moving. So that's it. Now we just need the weather to turn. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Dismissed!"

Hardly. Not an ounce of analysis, a hint of a plan, or a whiff of critical thinking there. My knees twitch at the thought of all that goose-stepping. The Gruntthink so necessary to the impossibly brave Americans on the beach was useless to the leaders who sent them there. Leaderthink was equally indispensable for victory. But does Ike's imagined pep rally have a familiar ring? It should: "Stay the course." "Mission Accomplished." "Never Forget." "Dead Or Alive!" "War On Terror!"

What we've learned in the last eight years is that if all we get from a candidate is Gruntthink, we may get little else if that candidate is elected. And we've learned where Gruntthink in leadership gets us. An economy in shambles, two poorly-prosecuted wars, the highest job loss rate in decades and hundreds of thousands of families losing their dreams to foreclosure. And not one bit safer by any objective measure. Stay what course?

It seems desperately simple that In any large organization, the rank and file outnumber the leadership exponentially. If it doesn't, you really don't have an organization. You have a mob. Most of us aren't Leaderthinkers, and that's a good thing. The leadership not only has to think in bigger, broader and more strategic terms than those on the front line or the factory floor, they have to employ a very different manner of thinking. And those thoughts don't fit on the fridge. The consequences of electing another "one of us" are staggering, but Sarah Palin has brought out the slogan hunters.

Obama answered - or tried to answer in the Gruntthink time frame - Warren's "evil" question in classic Leaderthink style. Evil, he thought/spoke, comes in many forms and can be found everywhere, even in our own families. Truth screams from that analysis, but you'd better have an awfully big refrigerator. And you'd better not be speaking to people who are on the edge of their chairs waiting for the next slogan. Only a few days ago, Obama was actually bitten twice by Leaderthink with a single question. In an interview for ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, George asked if the senator's answer to the Warren "when does life begin" query was, perhaps, "flip." (Unlike McCain, who seemed to know all the science involved as well as what God -everyone's god - thought on the subject, Obama told Warren the answer was "above his pay grade.") It probably was flip, Obama allowed. And the Leaderbrain began to whir on that, and the analysis began to flow. And all over America, the eyes of magnet collectors glazed over. Again. Magnet collectors who vote.

If Obama had an internal Leader-to-Grunt converter, like Bill Clinton ("It's the economy, stupid!"), he would have said, "Only God knows that, so it's really above my pay grade." Period. Full stop. First one who blinks loses. If he'd said it to Warren, the crowd might have agreed. And George never would have asked his question. If he'd said it to George, we might never have to hear about it again.

We have two chances this time around to elect a leader who thinks like a leader. Either Barack suddenly develops the internal filter, or we turn out enough people who understand that Leaderthink, while not slogan friendly, is good in, well, a leader. I say we work like hell to GET OUT THE VOTE. I've got a magnet on my fridge to remind me.