If Obama Were In My MBA Class….

Many of the faculty who grade President Barack Obama’s leadership know-how or know-not have advised former presidents. If President Barack Obama turned up in the business school classrooms of the leadership experts we spoke with, here’s what they would tell him.

Deborah Ancona of MIT's Sloan School

Deborah Ancona, MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Make it clear what you have done. Make it clear what you think can and should be done in the different domains you’re trying to work in. Right now, people are unclear about what direction you’re taking and why. Get some visible task forces working on the issues you’re facing–pull together a variety of different experts and people who really understand the issues. You need a broader, more diverse set of people engaged in problem solving. Lastly, reconnect with the people you energized during the campaign, and use that group to resurrect your power and your messaging.

Susan Ashford of Michigan's Ross School of Business

Susan Ashford, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Read a little Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis. Remember what the keys to success are in the world you’re entering. Remember that in Washington, it’s a public support and public impression game. You need to control of that. The war on public opinion is being lost big time. For instance, you put through major health care reform, and yet it’s seen as socialism. Someone else has control.

Warren Bennis of USC's Marshall School of Business

Warren Bennis, University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business

I’ve never seen a man entering public life with the qualities Obama has of brilliance, perspective, emotional stability, and a fairly stable personality. Given all his qualities, he’d be on higher end of competencies that I’ve written about.

Right now could possibly be the darkest period in his presidency. I’d like him to broaden the team around him. While the current team is good, he needs other voices to help him articulate his direction and goals.

Angel Cabrera, Thunderbird School of Global Management

Angel Cabrera of Thunderbird

He needs, for the second half of his (four-year) mandate, to rearticulate the vision, especially on the economic front. Move it from ‘avoiding disaster’ to ‘creating success.’ Then, enlarge his coalition–recruit moderate Republican and corporate support.

Bill George of Harvard Business School

Bill George, Harvard Business School

Get a strong team around you that understands how to build a strong economy. Clinton brought in David Gergen (who had served in Republican administrations), and he saved his presidency.

Manfred F. R. Kets De Vries, INSEAD

Manfred F. R. Kets De Vries of INSEAD

He has very high ideals and I like his insight. But I’d pay some attention to the people around him and how much they compensate him and do the things he’s not as good at. He must get better on the execution part. I’d ask, ‘what surprised you when you got to Washington, compared to Chicago?’ I’d want him to really think about what he can do to become more effective in Washington.

Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford's Graduate School of Business

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford Graduate School of Business


Put the changes he wants and has accomplished in vivid, stark, and concrete terms that people can relate to. For example, there is lots of evidence that about 45,000 people die each year from an absence of health insurance, and the mechanisms or pathways behind this number are also clear–therefore, people who oppose health care for all should called what they are, “murderers.” He ought to make it clear why we need financial reform, etc.  He needs a clear, strong message.

Second, he should make it clear that as long as he is in power, there will be rewards for going along and sanctions for crossing him–he is willing to deal, but only if people honor their commitments.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale's School of Management

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Yale School of Management

The same advice I gave President Bill Clinton in 1994: Get away from Wall Street and Washington and hold a series of National Economic Summits in the great US cities where there’s both hope and peril. See and hear what is happening. Bring in business leaders, social workers and community figures to have direct, problem-solving dialogues. Clinton offered visions coming out of these summits that were more than cathartic, and showed that he was listening. Clinton did this at the same time in his presidency, when he had lower approval ratings than Obama does now.

Noel Tichy, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Noel Tichy of Michigan's Ross School of Business

Get clear on your teachable point of view: what are the ideas and values that define you? Leaders lead through stories. Get a clear story line about how that teachable point of view is going to motivate people. Make a case for change, and [explain] how we’ re going to get there. Don’t make it convoluted. And at the end of the day, the wealth-producing engine of society is business. You need them on board.

Mike Useem of The Wharton School

Mike Useem, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

He has exceptional rhetorical skills. His sentences make sense. They come together to create a picture. They appeal to the head and heart at the same time. In that sense, he’s one of his own best spokes people, so being out more and in contact with more people is probably a good idea.