In fairy tales there is often a point at which a spell is broken. Cinderella has to leave the ball. Like many others, I was caught up in the new fairy story of Barack Obama. Now I am receiving those signals warning that the every fantasy coach has the potential of turning back into a pumpkin
The original post was written in November 2008 as a counter-balance to the enormously high expectations set upon the newly elected President. It is now possible to take the wider picture and examine the post in light of the President’s first hundred days in power.
After the honeymoon, the complexities of his role and the tasks facing his administration quickly became clear in foreign and domestic fronts.
Original post follows
It helps bring some balance to the perspective of Mr Obama as an outstanding political figure, a breathtaking orator, if we also recognise him as a human being, facing the dilemmas which confront every leader.
Rahm Emanuel was written up as The Attack Dog
Described by those who know him as variously an attack dog, warrior, political gangster – the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Barack Obama’s chief of staff has sent a shiver of unease through Republicans hoping for a new spirit of conciliation under the newly-elected president.
Then there was Timothy Geithner
More consistent with Obama’s inclusive style was the appointment of
Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, a move largely acclaimed.
Now there’s Hilary.
The media were writing headlines well in advance of the appointment of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State
The combative, feisty, Hilary who nearly nailed Obama in the democratic run-offs. The Hilary with both helps and hindrances gifted by husband Bill to her career prospects. In fantasy land, Hilary was the wicked witch to be defeated and cast into outer darkness. Banished from the kingdom, as rewards go to those who fought the good fight. But now she seems to be rewarded despite her campaign. Come to think of it, husband Bill lost his cool at one point in the campaign warning the electorate that Barack Obama was creating a fantasy world.
What’s going on?
Harvard Business Review, (admittedly synopticised by Business Week) spots the implication of the decision to appoint such a confrontational figure as Emanuel. They took the view that every leader with inclinations towards a generosity of spirit should have an attack dog to do the dirty work. The following misses one additional factor, that of total loyalty to the leader.
Obama radiates a cool, steady calmness. Watching him from afar, you cannot imagine him coming down hard on people to get things done; this is not his style and he knows it. That’s why he chose as his chief of staff a man who loves to “win.” Brash, bold and abrasive, Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton White House aide, is opposite of Obama’s cool; he’s fire and passion backed with relentless drive. For someone of Obama’s temperament, Emanuel is an ideal chief of staff, a job that H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, viewed as being the “president’s S.O.B.” Emanuel’s selection demonstrates how leaders need to surround themselves with people who complement them, not replicate them.
How to make sense of all this?
These issues may be uncomfortable for the millions who bought into the oratory of Obama, with its messages of hope and change. But now, perhaps, we have to be prepared to let go of some of the fantasy. America has elected a President who does bring hope for change a remarkable set of unrivalled leadership skills. But the charisma must not blind us from the otherwise obvious: that he is a human being, nevertheless who will wrestle with the realities of political power in a democratic society, and with the dilemmas of leadership.
There are strong indictions that charismatic power may well have helped Obama’s rise to office, but that the realities of leadership require explaining in other ways such as a distribution of roles (distributed leadership), including some good ol’ fashioned situational leadership opportunities, and more than a touch of accomodation. I’m inclined to see the appointment of Hilary Clinton as an indicator of creative leadership, and a willingness to find imaginative approaches which turn ‘threats into opportunities’
For students of leadership:
Students of leadership may be interested in an examination of how Barack Obama’s oratory works its magic.