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

No matter how you tally his results, they are still “invisible” to most Americans, warns Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT-Sloan and head of the MIT Leadership Center. “What people see is high unemployment, services being cut by local government, and huge debt.” That’s a shame, she says, awarding him a B. “We have to give this man credit for passing health care legislation, getting some educational and financial regulation reform through, cutting the financial crisis short and cutting forces in Iraq, despite the odds, like Republican opposition, and the fact that the recession was so deep.”

The shelf life of Obama’s results is also questionable. Susan Ashford, Professor of Management and Organizations at Michigan’s Ross School, says, “he got health care through, but it’s not through solidly. Everyone’s chipping away at it. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve changed something.” She asks Obama the same question she asks her own students: “What brings results in the [professional] world you’re entering? Obama’s in a world of public opinion. He had so much good will going in, and he lost the vehicle that gets good public opinion, the media.” Instead of seven pro-Obama stories to one negative, she reckons the equation has flipped out of Obama’s favor. And that’s not a result to write home about.  Issues around Obama’s race are likely another force working against his ability to tally more policy successes. “Who else has to defend their birth certificate?” asks Ashford.

His harshest critique – a C – came from Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “A stimulus that didn’t stimulate, but that nonetheless raised the deficit; financial regulation that didn’t really fix things; and a health care reform that didn’t go far enough. Most of it doesn’t go into effect for years, so you get the criticism now and the benefits much later. Bad idea.”

Goodbye Mr. Nice Guy?

“When you go into a thick lawn of grass, you have to pull the machine back and come in with more speed to cut the lawn,” says Wharton’s Useem. “After the November election, there will be a momentary pulling back and a decision not to waver in the mission but rather to adjust the tactics.”

Perhaps, but other faculty are dubious that Obama will alter his inner circle enough to really shake up his priorities. The Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 15 that White House officials were no longer looking to fill Larry Summer’s shoes with a corporate chieftain, adding fuel to the fire of discontent brewing between Obama and the very people who sign off on more or fewer US jobs.

It may be time for Obama to toughen up. “Obama is too nice,” says Stanford’s Pfeffer. “Likeability is overrated. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, compromise often doesn’t work–because in the end, no one is happy. That’s why the Democrats will do badly in the mid-terms–too much compromise.”

One of Obama’s greatest strengths–his charisma–also stands to be his greatest drawback.  German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) developed a theory about charisma that Obama fits into very well, says Ashford. “Charismatic leaders will get an extraordinary following as long as they are faithful to the charismatic ideal. Obama was so charismatic that voters thought he was able to do anything. He couldn’t be faithful to that because he ran into Washington. The one thing we know about charismatic leaders is that if they stop meeting that charismatic ideal, the response is swift and strong: People have more emotional reactions, such as anger, disappointment, and resentment.” And that will likely play out at the polls.

As he approaches the second half of his first term as President, Obama might consider lifting a few lines from another great orator. In 1936, President Roosevelt told a crowd at Madison Square Garden: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it these forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their master. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in these forces met their master.”

If Obama can set a new vision and manage the story of his presidency, whilst honing his execution skills, the professors measuring Obama’s leadership credentials might just boost his report card before November 2012.

(President Obama’s full report card from all ten leadership gurus.)

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