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

Obama might consider tips from former President George W. Bush as he re-tools. While President Bush faced criticism for being overly simplistic as a speaker, Obama is gaining a reputation for the opposite. “When you read Obama’s speeches, they’re beautiful,” says Warren Bennis, of USC’s Marshall School of Business. “They’ll go down as some of the most brilliant essays. But none of them has a sound bite. Where is Reagan’s, ‘Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall?’” Lacking that, the media yawns when he delivers amazing speeches, such as his December 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Bennis says.

The solution? Tichy prescribes the same basics he shares with his students: “make a case for change and how we’re going to get there. Don’t make it convoluted.” If Obama can work on that, he could his impact and alignment will improve, Tichy says. He should also be more combative, authoritative in dealing with his critics, adds INSEAD’s Kets De Vries.

Execution

Execution can be a thorny subject for executives and politicians like Obama: it’s no good having a new product or idea if you cannot get it out the door. On execution, faculty show the most criticism of Obama’s performance, scrawling a B- across his mid-term report. Under fire are his priorities, the people advising him, and a growing rift between the West Wing and Wall Street.

The leadership experts give mixed marks for Obama’s initial priorities. USC’s Bennis awards Obama an A for execution, but says that Obama should have begun his mandate with a focus on job creation. “That would have gotten people to the polls,” he says. Obama “hasn’t learned to touch people’s hearts” by focusing on long-range issues of education, tax policy, and regulation of the financial markets. “Compare that to what Roosevelt did in mid-1930s by creating the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), which in a week’s time brought millions of people to work. That’s where people’s visceral strings are.” (Bennis campaigned for Roosevelt in the 1930s.) Bennis commends Obama for getting “a hell of a lot done, but not the things that people experience every day.”

It’s time for Obama to rethink his priorities, says Michael Useem, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management. To do that, Obama might subscribe to one of the basic tenants of sound leadership–forming a diverse team of advisors, from a mix of professional and theoretical backgrounds, who aren’t afraid to second-guess their Commander-in-Chief. “Leadership 101 is remembering that you sit in the Oval Office, but it’s the direct reports who make the policies rise or fall,” says Useem. “In that sense, the team is more important than any individual in it.”

One of his lowest marks, a C, comes from Harvard’s George. Obama’s lack of experience in business requires a safe ring of seasoned advisors by his side, George says. “Instead, he surrounded himself with a narrow team of people he’d worked closely with for years, and a couple of economists, including (outgoing National Economic Council Director) Larry Summers. Every leader needs to make sure that they surround themselves with skills they don’t have.” Other appointments that baffle George? Obama’s National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon, and secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, the former Governor of Kansas who wields little experience in health care.

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