Oswald Letter

The ultimate leadership challenge

by Dan Oswald

The day after the 2012 presidential election, a colleague forwarded to me an interview with Michael Siegel, the author of The President as Leader. The interview was conducted by the Washington Post’s Tom Fox and centered around the top attributes of a great leader.

In the interview, Siegel points to four leadership qualities that define excellence:

(1)  Having a compelling vision
(2)  Being able to implement the vision
(3)  Focusing on a few major goals
(4)  Understanding the process and implications of decision making

I can’t argue with any of those. Having a compelling vision—and the ability to implement that vision—is critical for any leader. A manager must not only have a vision for where she wants to lead but also be able to communicate and achieve that vision. Focusing on a few major goals, assuming they are the right goals, is good advice for a leader. And being an effective decision maker is also critical to the manager’s success. That means making timely decisions based on good information.

But it seems to me that there’s more to it if the president of the United States wants to succeed. On Election Day, Barack Obama was given the opportunity to lead this country for four more years. But—and this is not unusual for a president—nearly half the country voted against him. By the latest count, nearly 57 million U.S. citizens voted for his opponent.

Managers are appointed, hired, or promoted, but the president must be elected. Imagine that instead of a CEO being appointed, she had to be elected to the position by the employees. Of course, she wasn’t the only person interested in the job, so she had to be elected at the expense of another colleague in the company. She wins the election and now must run a company in which nearly half the people sided with her opponent.

Not only must she have a compelling vision, but she also must convince her opponent’s followers that she has the right vision. This is after the people who now work for her voted for the other person’s vision. And the ability to implement her vision takes the cooperation of employees and managers who openly supported her foe and fundamentally disagree with where she wants to take the company.

That is what faces the president of the United States. A vision that is compelling to the 50 percent of the citizens who elected him is not enough. Somehow he must create a vision that is compelling to not only those who elected him but also those who voted for his opponent. He must have the ability to implement his vision despite being actively opposed by members of the other party in Congress. The dynamics are very different for the president than they are for any CEO—and much more challenging.

Siegel references a speech that John F. Kennedy gave after the Bay of Pigs incident in which the president admitted that he had failed and that the American people should blame him for that failure. And what was the result of that admission of failure on the part of the president? According to Siegel, JFK’s popularity “shot way up.”

That speech was given more than 50 years ago. I’ll admit that it was before my time. But I’m not sure that in today’s partisan politics, a speech by the president admitting failure wouldn’t result in calls for Congress to hold hearings on the mission, countless pundits criticizing the president, and some calling for his resignation.

All of this is to say that despite a victory last night, the president has his work cut out for him. He has to communicate a vision that can be embraced not only by his own party but also by the vast majority of Americans. He must find a way to reach across the aisle and work with the Republican leadership to implement that vision. And he must focus on goals that unite the American people. It will take extraordinary leadership skills and conviction for that to happen. For the good of all Americans, let’s hope it does.