My Leadership Perspective

Obama the Sovereign


In the wake of President Barack Obama's recent trip to Europe, many people have been left wondering what the new idea was. Some are looking for a new coalition that will extend change beyond the U.S. Others would have liked to see results.

They are all missing the point. His mÉtier is neither new thinking nor the exercise of influence nor the use of power. He is in the business of inspiration. It defines his approach to leadership and speaks to the kind of leadership campaign at which he is a master.

For some time now, I have found that by applying the Jungian framework of four ideal characters as presented by Robert Moore, I could create a useful topology of leaders. Some leaders are recorded by history as magicians, for they tried to change the world by the brilliance of their ideas. (Henry Kissinger was a magician, although Richard Nixon was the originator of the key ideas of the era.) Lovers know how to mobilize people by just sharing their feelings and influencing them. Bill Clinton was second to none at that. A third category of leaders are warriors, always focused on exercising power and winning, like George W. Bush. However, there is another kind of leader: the sovereign. Like Obama, sovereigns are in the business of inspiration.

Redefining What Is Possible

Inspiration is the breathing of new air; it is about redefining what is possible. It stimulates both the heart and the mind, but it appeals to the soul. In the past 20 years, inspiration has been on the retreat in the West both in practice and in leadership literature. For several reasons, people have been enamored of the other three elements of leadership: thinking, motivation, and empowerment—often referred to as execution.

Yet, most collective action is the result of inspiration. Just ponder these questions: How would the U.S. have evolved without Lincoln; India without Gandhi; Africa without Mandela? When it comes to leadership, inspiration is more important than thinking, mobilization, or empowerment, although it is one of four components of what I call the TIME framework of leadership.

Each of these components corresponds to a different "campaign," a sequence of actions a leader undertakes to bring about collective action. Magicians are greatly skilled in leading "thinking" campaigns; lovers are naturals for "mobilization" campaigns; warriors for "empowerment"—including disempowerment—campaigns. And sovereigns like Obama excel in "inspirational" campaigns. In fact, I believe Obama`s recent trip to Europe provides a good case study of the do's and don'ts of such a campaign.

Obama inspired by actively listening, acknowledging, relating, confronting, setting boundaries, and defining an inescapable future—and in that sequence. He did not favor the new at the expense of the old; he did not favor friends at the expense of others; he was more concerned with impact than results. Obama impressed by listening to the arguments and demonstrating how much he knew of the issues on the agenda and how interested he was in understanding them. He solicited reactions to counterarguments that he offered and also took personal notes.

Understanding Others' Positions

Unlike Clinton, President Obama did not seek to relate mainly by warmth of personality and a sense of humor, but rather by his ability to understand the position of others. Several times, especially when talking either to audiences of younger people or in Turkey (a country with a Muslim majority), he used his personal story as the reason they should trust him. In doing so, he demonstrated that he knows that what sovereigns need most is trust and that the best shortcut to trust is the public admission of joint vulnerabilities. At no point did he apologize for American actions, but he did rely on the power of acknowledging mistakes—like starting the war in Iraq and starting the financial bubble—to create momentum for his campaign.

However, listening, relating, and winning trust are just the preliminaries of inspiration. The redefinition of what is possible ultimately necessitates confrontation. And, as every good lawyer knows, acknowledgment of the weaknesses in one's own case establishes credibility in confronting the arguments of others.

While in Europe, Obama confronted a lot of arguments—some of them advanced by Europeans, some of them previously espoused by American policymakers. He repeatedly confronted the long-standing American perception that the European Union is a mirage. The message of his several press conferences was a plea for responsibility rather than for compliance with the wishes of America. This disappointed some in the U.S., but made it easier for the Chinese to contribute $50 billion to the IMF during the G-20 meeting and for other countries to pledge 5,000 new troops for Afghanistan during the NATO meeting that followed.

He also confronted some entrenched European perceptions. The town hall meetings dispelled the perception that a dialogue with the U.S. is not possible. The pictures with the other G-20 and NATO leaders—where Obama did not just walk to the center front—made people think that the U.S. has the capacity to evince humility. In Turkey he set boundaries: He promised not to speak of the Armenian genocide but urged Turkey to open the frontiers with Armenia. He would support Turkey's entry into the EU but expected Turkey to grant minority rights to its Kurdish minority. These words could easily be interpreted as interference in domestic affairs, but the Turks understood that this President was not about carrots and sticks, but rather standards that he deems applicable across national frontiers and religious divides.

Emotional Steadiness

Obama loyalists in the U.S. called his trip a triumph. Almost all Europeans observers found the new President articulate and charming. "His personal style has a touch of the emperor and a touch of the rock star—but with an appealing humility that is common to neither profession" wrote the Financial Times. Even the left wing press extolled his intellectual thoroughness and emotional steadiness. Nobody doubted that Obama was genuine in his beliefs and indeed charismatic.

The fact that Obama came from lowly origins to occupy the most powerful office in the world enhances his charisma. However, despite Obama's qualifications and charisma, a lot of people on both sides of the pond remain skeptical. They are still looking for the idea that Obama represents. They are pointing to the lack of global agreement on how to fix the economy. They are wondering whether, even if Obama is the right man, he came at the wrong time to have any impact—given the decline in American economic power.

I believe the skeptics are missing the point: Obama came to Europe to inspire. He accomplished that by the boldness of his ambitions, which set him apart not only from his predecessor but also from the leaders he mingled with. He wants to shock the world economy back into action, abolish nuclear weapons, reconcile Christianity and Islam, and ultimately usher in an era of sustainable growth and responsibility. Focusing on standards comes to him naturally; this is how he has excelled.

Nobody laughed with him in the corridors of power, and nobody demonstrated against him in the streets. The American brand was greatly restored in the course of a week. This was the target of the short campaign.

Transformation of America

Restoring the American brand in Europe will not be enough for the new President to be successful. After all, Europeans will not vote in the next U.S. election. Obama has set high standards for himself: the transformation of America. Transformation cannot occur on inspiration alone. It takes a series of campaigns. Some will require new "thinking," like the Geithner plan. Some will require "mobilization," to refinance mortgages and to put people back to work. Some will require "empowering" the regulators and disempowering those who want to become too big to be allowed to fail. Each of these campaigns has its own requirements, begs for different teams.

It is not clear that Obama is himself capable to lead all these campaigns. He is, however, gifted in providing what most transformational efforts lack to their demise: a new Purpose. We have seen the limits of America as a superpower trying to change the world on its own. An era of responsibility and sustainable growth presupposes an America that strives for excellence for its own shake and sets the standards while pursuing it.

A leadership consultant, Nikos is author of the book Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies and can be reached at Nikosonline.com.

Mourkogiannis
A leadership consultant, Nikos is author of the book Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies and can be reached at Nikosonline.com.

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