The leadership styles of President Obama

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Published: November 14,2010

Tags: COLUMNS, Phil Hardwick

What is President Obama’s leadership style?

Before answering that question it would be appropriate to define the term.  What is “style?”  It is simply the way that something is done.  In the college football world one hears a lot about “style points” these days.  It refers to how a team wins, i.e., by how many points and the methods used to achieve victory.  In the leadership world there are three classic styles.

The authoritarian (a.k.a. autocratic) style is one in which the leader provides clear expectations about what should be done, how it will be done and when it will be done.  The leader makes the decisions; the group follows.  In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” a group of cave dwellers have been chained by their hands and feet all of their lives and can only see a wall in front of them  On the wall are shadows cast by their captors walking in front of a fire behind them.  Their reality is what they see on the wall.  When one of the prisoners is freed he stands up and sees the other reality.  He sees how the shadows are cast, the role of the fire and the captors and much more.  When he goes outside the caves he sees another world.  He then returns to the cave and attempts to describe what he has seen to the cave dwellers, and to have them follow him out of the cave.  In other words, this type leader has the vision and motivates the group to follow him or her.

The participative (a.k.a. democratic) style is one in which the leader offers suggestions and guidance to the group and even participates in the group’s deliberations.  The members of the group are part of the visioning and planning process and therefore feel more inclusive and engaged.  They feel that they own part of the vision. Nevertheless, they do not make the final decision.  That is still the leader’s job.

The delagative (a.k.a. laissez-faire) style is one where the group is told to figure it out on their own.  They make the decision on where the company should go, what the outcome should be without any help from the leader.  The leader offers no guidance or suggestions.

From these three classic leadership styles, which originated in the late 1930’s based on research led by psychologist Kurt Lewin, up to 10 different leadership styles have been identified and categorized.  All fall in between the extremes of authoritarian and delagative styles.

During his campaign for the Presidency, Barack Obama was magnificent at painting the vision of the future.  His use of “hope and change” was the oil used to create the painting.  He also brought us into the picture by telling us all in his inauguration speech that: “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”  He was then ready to implement the vision.  But things have not exactly worked out that way.

Once in office, his leadership style seemed to be different than the leader who has the vision and then motivates the followers to participate.  He was often described as a good delegator and one who turned over responsibility to capable and competent persons in addition to putting highly qualified people in important posts.  But that style — or perception — can go too far if the followers do not want it.  The vision and implement style seemed to turn into the delegate and hands-off style.  Many of his followers maintained that the healthcare bill fiasco could have been avoided if he had not turned over the matter to Pelosi and Reid.  Andrew Malcolm of the L.A. Times had a blog on Jan. 5, 2010 headlined “Democrats Reid, Pelosi ponder crafting Obama’s final healthcare bill behind closed doors.”

This shows that leadership styles are often situational.  The leader needs to use a style appropriate to the circumstances.  That does not mean that the style should be so situational as to not be grounded in principle and in the long view.  One former president was often chided for being obsessed with what the polls said and what the focus were thinking.  Such a style is best expressed in the phrase, “I must hurry for there they go and I am their leader.”

Regardless of what may be ahead, the lessons of leadership as espoused by Bill George in his book “7 Lessons For Leading In Crisis” are worth an leader’s read.  Those lessons are as follows:

>>  Face Reality — Starting with Yourself

>>  Don’t Be Atlas; Get the World Off Your Shoulders

>>  Dig Deep for the Root Cause

>>  Get Ready for the Long Haul

>>  Never Waste a Good Crisis

>>  You’re in in the Spotlight; Follow True North

>>  Go on Offense, Focus on Winning Now

George concludes his book by stating that “Crisis may be your defining moment.”  It remains to be seen what President Obama’s defining moment will be because there are likely to be even more crises and opportunities ahead.

Leading is not all about style, but style plays a huge role in leadership.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government in Jackson. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.

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