If Obama Were In My MBA Class….

by Mica Bevington on

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 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 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 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

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 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

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 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 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

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 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.

  • lawrence b. ii

    This is a President who will not listen to the people. He has his own plan regardless. He already said ” he isn’t concerned about being a one-term President.” He can’t be helped.

  • Marie

    I think everyone brings up valid points. I like what Cabrera from Thunderbird school and Bennis from USC said, they both seem to be on the path that Obama needs to bring in more people to help him.

  • disgustedwichu

    Hillary trounced Obama in 21 consecutive debates, and the woman still doesn’t get the nomination; she runs circles around him in articulation, wisdom, intelligence, everything, including having an impeccable record of service which he does not and never will have.

    He won by cheating in the caucuses and committing voter fraud.

    It makes me sick to hear people applaud his “rhetorical” skills, he got the actual content and substance of his thoughts from her, during the debates,else, he’d have no thoughts nor weigh-in a t’all.

    he’s a liar, a cheat, a fake, an entitled male elitist corporatist.

    All he wants to do and knows how to do is be a rock star on the campaign trail – it’s disturbing. Operative word “campaign”

    we need someone who wants to be the President. We needed a Madam President, not a mr. present (remember the 132 consecutive votes “present” while he was a state senator?!! 132 bills and not one worthy of a yes or no vote to be or not be made into law??!! – there’s your record folks – “mr. present”. do-nothing present.

    For the first 2 years he’s been “present” until Pelosi told him to weigh-in on healthcare and “step it up” in his efforts. Can you imagine Pelosi having to tell Hillary to “step it up”??!!

    IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!

    Just watch – the slacker has more to show us in the way of slacking – 2 years and nothing to show for it and you haven’t seen nothing from nothin yet (=0) – you will see even more nothing come from him in the next 2 years, more photo-ops from the golfcourse, the hoops court, the roaring adulating obamazombies, more Obama flying around in airforce 1 being new “King” of pop culture.

    When will we learn to vote the record?
    Hillary 2008, 2012, 2016, whatta a pathetic sexist country we live in – has anyone else noticed the media never compares Hillary’s staggering 76% approval rate (from both parties) consistent over the last 2 years and never compared to any of the men’s?

    That’s so we don’t see Obama for the true mediocrity that Obama and his voters really are.

    I’m a progressive liberal for 40 years now, I have voted straight democrat in order to vote against Republicans and I am 60+ now and ashamed to see Obama in office and more ashamed to ally myself with fellow liberals who voted for yet another back to back tall, white (okay he’s mixed but he’s no raison in the sun) another privileged male selected to office.
    Pretty disgusting how the liberal left has morfed into the despicable dishonest militant and immoral right wing of this country.

    Yes, I’m male.

    One thing we learn, everyone on both sides, eventually is to stop defending things that should be discarded and are not defensible.

    Liberals now need to stop defending Barrack Obama.

    He didn’t even deserve to be a one term President in the first place; he has never earned or deserved any of his titles.

    He’s not a statesmen, he’s a campaigner. He’s a pathological liar and a s-k-r f-k-r

    and yes, I give up on this country – you’re all too mfgdstupid

    ps – Obama is directly responsible for the gulf oil spill!
    just follow the thought process dimwits, think about it dimwits

  • Matt

    The editors of this site may want to consider closing comments for this article. I (and presumably most visitors here) enjoy Poets and Quants for its insight into contemporary business schools, not to hear the same angry political debate that saturates news media websites. It was a pretty big turn off to read some of the comments unrelated to business school that are posted here.

  • Spiro G. Vassilopoulos

    I find it interesting that you ask people that are almost all from business schools – Harvard, Insead, Stanford, Yale,Wharton and some minor others. One thing you don’t mention is that “business” schools are the most destructive force in the American, and for that matter, the world economies. What do they really do besides advocate efficiency 100% vs 0% creativity.

    Fact of the matter is that most American multi-nationals continue to make their money by the arbitrage of cheaper foreign labor. Faceless slaves in China are better than bothersome and expensive Americans. Add to the MBAs the legions of lawyers with their “legal ramifications” and the result is a absolute risk-avoidance and zero creativity.

    Obama happened because children voted. What he needs to do is stop being an eloquent empty suit and gather people around him that have accomplished something tangible. He should do the unthinkable – get a dozen or so modern equivalents of the likes of Gordon Moore.

    In closing, 30-some years ago I read a comment in a business magazine that said something to the effect of:

    “I’ll never hire and MBA because the first thing they’ll do is memorize your Rolodex, suck your brains out and then they’ll get their own desk and telephone.”

    Today Rolodexes aren’t used anymore – they are a historical curiosity. A good MBA will just download your customer list and not bother with getting a desk – he or she will just use their personal cell phone from your office parking lot.

  • thomas p

    I would say you are a total embarassment to the United States and a tool at best. If there has ever been a president that is more anti American, and out of touch with whats right, Id like to know who he is.

  • Judith Davies

    I found it sad that the MBA professors interviewed for this article did not speak in exact terms of how the president could actually improve the economy, create jobs, and control the national debt. We the people need specifics from somebody who can and will do the actual math. The one theme most of them seemed to follow is that the president needs better advisers and I, for one, agree! He has not the business or mathematical background that leads to being able to understand debt management or job creation, and sadly neither did his predecessor. Whether conservative or liberal there have been job creators on both sides of the aisle, including Clinton and Reagan. Carter was, and Obama is a job killer because neither know how to do the math, and right now, health care aside, national security aside, entitlements aside, and all other issues, WE NEED JOBS in America! We need a tax structure that gives incentive to companies to open shop and stay here, with both the feds and the states participating. I’m sad that people die from not having health care,but I know as an independent contractor anyone can have it if they can keep generating an income. It’s when you cannot generate enough income yourself that you have to go to someone else. Special needs people should be taken care of, but the rest of the able-bodied Americans should be able to provide for themselves and they cannot if they cannot keep their own money. It’s simple math, and it does not take an MBA to figure it out.

    The citizens of this country need to see in writing ALL the government programs that are being funded and need to have the right to decide which ones stay and which ones go because our so-called leaders on both sides of the aisle have failed to give us the facts, to let us see where our tax dollars are actually going, and to curb the spending! I don’t care if someone has a corporate jet paid for by company profits as that means people are making money and keeping their jobs! I am tired of barely making ends meet and seeing Air Force One on yet another “side trip!”

  • harry

    what else could one have expected from someone with no experience at all running or managing anything in their life.. not even as little as a hotdog or lemonaid stand. the job is way above his paygrade.. even as a senator he voted 137 times present….the man is so afraid that anyone could complain on how he voted…gift of gab is not enough experience to be president of anything.

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