B-School Leadership Gurus Say Obama Is No ‘A’ Student

On November 2, Americans will cast their votes in what will be the first official review of President Barack Obama’s performance. Ahead of the crucial, mid-term vote, ten of the world’s top professors of leadership and management have assessed Obama against some of the core tenants of leadership — vision, execution and results.

Our graders are among the most admired and respected leadership experts in the world, ranging from Warren Bennis at USC and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld at Yale to Noel Tichy at Michigan and Manfred F. R. Kets De Vries at INSEAD. By combining all of their grades, the leadership gurus give Obama passing marks, though he is far from an A student (the full report card from all ten leadership gurus).

We also asked these ten experts what they would tell the President if he was an MBA student in their classrooms? Turns out they have plenty of advice to offer (see their advice to the President). Here’s how they assess Obama on vision, execution, and results so far:


Obama earned a B+ for setting a strategy and communicating and selling his goals to Americans. The grades were inspired heavily by the way his speeches galvanized voters along the campaign trail in 2008. At the gate, faculty judged Obama as a masterful orator, delivering clear messages that Americans could relate to and believe in. “Yes we can,” peppered with a few “hows” gave voters a sense that Obama was capable of just about anything–check one for any leader hoping to inspire loyalty.

So strong was the buy in that some professors used his campaign and victory speeches as fodder for classroom discussions about good communication. “I showed my students his victory speech,” says Manfred F. R. Kets De Vries, director of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Centre. “It was moving. People don’t realize that you cannot over communicate.”

But Obama as a candidate compared with Obama as President gives some faculty pause. “His campaign speeches gave the American people hope that he would not work with lobbyists and that he would change Washington,” recalls Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School. “When he was in office, the first thing he did was to cut deals with lobbyists for health care. He ignored his vision to the people. So the people started listening to what other people said he was doing, rather than to what he said he was doing. He let the naysayers take over the messages.” Broken promises are worthy of a dunce cap in George’s eyes, causing him to drop Obama’s grade from what would have been an A in 2009 to a C-.

And his current rhetoric is missing a key ingredient–a fresh vision for a recession-battered country. “I assumed on Jan. 20, perhaps naively, that he’d give us a vision of where the country was going to go, and would set that out as a long-term plan,” George says. “He chose not to do that, nor has he done so since.”

As Obama moved from campaign to governance mode, he made another key communication gaffe. We know that if you’re in a crisis, the last thing you need to do is motivate people by giving sense of their standing on a burning platform, says Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. “He needs to start giving us a comprehensive vision on how we’re going to get out of this crisis. Otherwise, people feel fear. We need a structural approach to how the economy is shifting.” Sonnenfeld still gives Obama a B+ “for honoring his campaign commitments on health care and economic stabilization. He showed a steady hand and rescued some key industries. But the nation’s priorities are a moving target, and he cannot lost sight of that.”

University of Michigan’s Noel Tichy has written numerous articles on the importance of having what he calls a “teachable point of view.” Tichy says he is still waiting for Obama to deliver a new one, Jack Welch style. “Jack Welch’s motto was speed, simplicity and self confidence,” Tichy says, recalling his time at the helm of General Electric’s leadership academy, Crotonville. “Self-confident leaders can make things simple. That’s how you get speed and simplicity. Obama is not communicating in a simple way. This is the way you mobilize people. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were masters at it. Now we’ve got a leader who needs to learn that lesson.”

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