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

Obama cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to business leaders, says Sonnenfeld. “We have a very progressive generation of business leaders right now that want to help and are being ignored. People like Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, Jaime Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Jim McNerney, Jr. of Boeing, and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa… don’t expect to win every legislative battle, but want to be part of the dialogue. Even Warren Buffet hasn’t been brought into the discussions.”

Perhaps not surprising for a group of business school professors, Obama’s economics team fuels the most debate. A few corporate stars who have “experienced hard knocks of meeting payroll” would go a long way to bringing credibility to Obama’s inner circle, advises Bennis. “[His team is] too distanced from day-to-day leadership. No one has ever had any money or skin in the game of business.”

Obama also lacks a strong player who can “push Congress,” says INSEAD’s Kets De Vries. “He’s not [Lyndon B.] Johnson, a master at making deals. He needs someone who can make those deals for him.” He also needs “strong people around him who can say, ‘you’re fill of shit.’ You need people in business who have a healthy disrespect for their bosses. Hopefully there is enough push back.”

The lack of such diversity and know-how leaves the business community in doubt of Obama’s commitment to American enterprise. Obama has “polarized the business community,” which ought to be his biggest partner, Tichy says. “At the end of the day, the wealth-producing engine of society is business. He needs them on board.”

Until that happens, CEOs will be hesitant to invest in Obama’s America. For starters, Harvard’s George doesn’t expect much of an improvement on job creation in America. “CEOs are pragmatists,” he says. “They will not hire people in this country, because there’s too much uncertainty. We’re growing at less than the rate of inflation, and they’re seeing opportunities in emerging markets that are growing at 10%. Where would you put your money? You go where the opportunities are.”

Will Obama take such suggestions to heart? George isn’t hopeful. Along the corridors of the White House “there’s a deep-seeded distrust of business people,” he says. “They don’t want business people in there,” referencing his own private conversations with CEOs that have tried to make inroads.


In handing Obama a B grade for results, the leadership gurus said they were impressed with what the President has accomplished, despite significant strains on his policies from both sides of the political spectrum. “When he assumed office, he was facing probably the most difficult, complex, and long-range problems than any president in U.S. history–possibly with the exception of George Washington­­­­­–has ever faced,” says USC’s Bennis. “I don’t recall a president who’s had as negative and divisive a Congress in the last 100 years. How can he accomplish so much given the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Great Recession? He’s done a remarkable a job.”

Other B-school profs craved more. “He has averted what could have been the worst recession that any of us have ever experienced,” says Angel Cabrera, president of Thunderbird School of Global Management. “To me, that’s an amazing accomplishment. But it’s hard to sell. We still got a painful recession. People are hurting and you’re telling them, ‘be happy you’re only hurting a little bit, because the alternative could have been disastrous.'”

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