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Whither Obama: Transformation Man or Temporary Groundskeeper?

October 9, 2009

People – all of us – have a strong tendency to live in the present, discounting the impact of our actions on future generations and certainly forgetting the lessons of history. We scoff at the mistakes of the recent past, believing that we’re now sufficiently enlightened to make intelligent decisions. And we get totally caught up in the moment of political theatre – witness the jubilation of the “Yes We Can!” believers not too long ago.

And that brings me to American president Barack Obama.

I was just about to post this commentary when I learned of President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m as surprised as the people in Oslo who were taken aback by the announcement. For someone who’s been president for less than nine months, and who has not produced much in the way of tangible results, my view is that awarding the prize to Obama makes a mockery of the award. But I digress. Read on to learn about the framework I use to assess the President’s performance.

A few months ago, former GE CEO Jack Welch wrote in his weekly BusinessWeek column that President Obama was exhibiting strong leadership skills. Despite certain administration problems, Welch was confident that the new President was showing the right stuff. And so did I at the time. But now I’m not so sure.

In reflecting on President Obama’s performance through a transformative leadership lens – after all, he was billed as someone who would transform America – I thought that I would use John Kotter’s eight stage model on transformation efforts. Kotter, incidentally, is one of the leading thinkers and writers on management and leadership issues.

While Kotter’s model is aimed at organizations, it’s also applicable at a much bigger level to a country undergoing change. So here it is.

1) Establish a sense of urgency
Well, President Obama certainly scores high here. Whether it’s healthcare reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or education reform, he’s chafing at the bit to invoke change – and lots of it.

2) Form a powerful guiding coalition
This involves a shared commitment to change by those at the top – the decision-makers. Hmmm. I think the President’s got a problem here. And it’s not just Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats. Healthcare reform is the best current example. But Afghanistan is looming in the background. Sorry Mr. President, but you bomb on this one.

3) Create a vision
Yes, the President has been strong at creating a vision for America. The essence of a powerful vision is one that is SHARED by the country. Good examples of this are the two Roosevelt presidents, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. Right now, the United States is becoming more polarized, hardly a reflection of a shared vision.

4) Communicate the vision
This is where Jack Welch focused much of his comments. Yes, President Obama has been good at communicating at a macro level what he sees for America and the necessary changes. But he’s flipflopped too many times on a variety of issues.

5) Empower others to act on the vision
This includes removing obstacles to moving towards the vision. The President is partially succeeding here, but one example of a rapidly deteriorating situation is Afghanistan. He understood well during his campaign the problems in that country and has tried to strengthen US troop presence. But the growing conflict between needing even more troop strength and a US public that’s waking up to a possible 20 additional year commitment to Afghanistan is impeding Obama’s decision-making.

6) Plan for and create short-term wins
Perhaps this was best illustrated on Saturday Night Live (October 3) by actor Fred Armisen who plays President Obama. In that sketch, the ‘President’ speaks to the public on TV about his achievements to date. Every single issue he refers to receives a big ‘Nope,’ not done. Without short-term wins, Obama is steadily undermining his presidency.

7) Consolidate improvements and produce more change
Well, folks, we’re not there yet – and maybe we’ll never be before 2012.

8) Institutionalize new approaches
Stay tuned for 2012-2013

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