Barbara Kellerman on Presidential Leadership

Interviewed on Jan. 12, 2009, by Doug Gavel

Barack Obama takes office as president of the United States at a challenging moment in American history. At a time when the nation is engaged militarily in two foreign countries, it is also facing a potentially calamitous economic downturn that threatens Wall Street, the housing market, the auto industry, and the future of the American dream. Barbara Kellerman is the James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at the Center for Public Leadership and author of many books on leadership, and more recently, followership.

Q: How should the new president approach his first 100 days in office? How ambitious should he be in laying out his agenda for change against a backdrop of economic crises?

Kellerman:The term “first 100 days in office” is sounding increasingly quaint, because President Obama has already, in effect, had his first 100 days in office. The time between the election on November 4th and inauguration day on January 20th has seemed to most Americans to be a lifetime. And Barack Obama, unlike virtually every one of his predecessors, has not had the luxury of laying back.

This raises the question of whether in the 21st century there is too long a time lag between Election Day and Inauguration Day. While he was president-elect, Obama repeatedly said that there is only one president at a time, but he was unable to resist getting involved, obviously in large part because of the various unprecedented crises he faces.

I think we need to reconsider our notion of when the presidency begins officially and when it begins in fact.

Q: What are the most crucial leadership skills President Obama must demonstrate during his initial months in office?

Kellerman: The traditional leadership skills are simply not going to suffice for this particular president because of the moment into which he’s assuming the presidency of the United States. He’s going to be more like a juggler than anything else.

The most obvious leadership skills President Obama will need to demonstrate are a sense of clarity and purpose, and the ability to sort through competing demands, both domestically and internationally. The multiplicity of decisions that he’s going to be required to make immediately is possibly unparalleled. So above all, he will be asked to be reasonably calm in the face of particularly critical and tense times. That suits him very well because he happens to have a calm nature, but at the same time he will need to convey a sense of urgency.

Q: Any new leader faces the risk of overreaching by attempting to do too much too quickly, which can result in a powerful and damaging backlash. What lessons can President Obama take from previous administrations in minimizing that risk?

Kellerman:Some presidents seem to clutter their agenda, like Jimmy Carter who entered office with a long laundry list of things that he wanted to accomplish. And other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, seem to have the gift of simplifying items on his agenda, and especially those at the top of his agenda, which made it possible for the American people to have clear expectations during Reagan’s first and then second term.

In the case of Barack Obama, the demands on him are so acute – unlike Jimmy Carter, unlike Ronald Reagan – that it’s going to be difficult to prioritize. But it’s indicative that before he assumed office he was already warning the American people that he could not possibly begin to accomplish the many things that he had promised during the campaign.

Q: Your most recent book focuses on the concept known as “followership.” How important is it for President Obama to inspire and motivate his followers – both in the Congress and among the general public?

Kellerman:President Obama is a man who became president because of “followers” – that is ordinary people – who decided that he was the man that they wanted to put their energies into, and he surged ahead of Hillary Clinton, who had been the establishment candidate. So he more than most presidents understands the importance of rallying various people around him, and interestingly, even before he became president, he started doing just that. He has reached out to various constituencies, and those include the opposition as well as his natural political allies. Moreover he is using a variety of media to convey his various messages.

So I would argue that he, more than most, is not only good at connecting with followers, but intuitively, as well as experientially, understands the importance of doing so.

Given the demands on him, given the complexity of his agenda, he is going to have to try to hold onto his followers with an energy and an intelligence that is perhaps unparalleled in American history. The trouble is that followers necessarily go their own way, at least some of the time. It’s not clear that as the months wear on he will be able to count on them the way that he likely will in the early weeks and months of the administration. So holding onto followers, connecting with followers, is not only a short term task; the real trick is to do so over the longer term and in that sense he has his work cut out for him.

Q: What will you be observing most closely during the new president’s first year in office?

Kellerman:What I’m going to be interested in is whether he’s going to be able to capitalize on his natural capacity to cross boundaries – boundaries of race, obviously, but also national and international boundaries – and catapult himself into the position of world leader. The world has lacked – in particular since the United States' [reputation] has suffered so badly in recent years – the world lacks somebody, some institution that can give it organizing principles. The UN for example has failed in recent years very much to live up to its early promise and the current Secretary General is not even known to most Americans not to speak of other people around the world. So one question for me is whether Barack Obama can capitalize on some of the energy he’s mustered in the United States, to transform himself into something at least resembling a world leader. We need it.

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