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Obama: Managing His First Crisis


President Obama has led a charmed life. Now it's time for him to resize his spectacular image and show that he can endure the everyday ups and downs of the Oval Office

I committed an act of heresy recently when I told a die-hard Obamaniac friend that while I believed the arc of the new President's life was extraordinary, I rejected the notion that Barack Obama had lived a uniquely rough existence. I argued that on the contrary, Obama has enjoyed a staggeringly charmed life, his path to the Presidency in particular being an almost unbroken highway of green lights.

My friend reacted to my observation as if I had just endorsed child abuse; the quasi-biblical, nomadic sufferings of the new President being the only acceptable narrative in polite society.

The First Missteps on the Maiden Voyage

I had been trying to make a point about Obama's readiness to manage crises—the improvisational art in which I make my living. My concern is that there is a huge difference between the confidence that stems from a life of good fortune and that which comes from having consistently weathered searing pushback.

President Obama has had a rough week in terms of crisis management, a predictable folly that I pin on the everyday rough-and-tumble of political life as well as an oblivious overconfidence that whispers, "We don't make the mistakes that they do." Obama's Health & Human Services Cabinet nominee, Tom Daschle, and his Chief Performance Officer nominee, Nancy Killefer, withdrew their nominations after stepping on tax land mines. Even though Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner overcame his own tax snafu, it was, nevertheless, a distracting embarrassment.

While far from being Obama's Bay of Pigs, these missteps mark the beginning of his "shakedown cruise," the maiden voyage where the seaworthiness of his Administration is put to its initial test. The tax problems of Obama's appointments were especially mortifying because they were the kinds of violations that the most rudimentary vetting exercises are supposed to catch. The contrast between these events and the Obama brand are stark, highlighting the irony that his greatest political assets are simultaneously his twin liabilities: the aura of flawless hypercompetence and divinely inspired moral authority.

The Dangers of Oversell

Throughout his campaign, Obama didn't exactly work overtime to defuse his larger-than-life persona (think about the quasi-Presidential seal emblazoned on his airplane seat and his campaign podiums). He will rightly be cut some slack for a little while because he inherited our domestic and international crises, but the voting public will not excuse him forever if he fails to bridge the canyon that differentiates being Zeus from being Homer Simpson.

Put differently, when you live by the holy man mystique, you will surely be betrayed by it as you sail into the lethal shoals of damage control. An apt cautionary tale for Obama may be found in the recent annals of business, not politics.

In the 1990s, Hollywood talent agent Michael Ovitz enjoyed an avalanche of giddy publicity as a result of an orchestrated PR campaign to position himself as the "most powerful man in Hollywood." Fawning headlines and magazine covers touted his Zen-like mien, his omniscient eyes and ears, the fear his name instilled in the heart of mere showbiz mortals and, ironically, given all the self-generated hype, his secretiveness.

So awe-inspiring was Ovitz's reputation that his friend, then-Disney chief Michael Eisner, confronting heart trouble, tapped Ovitz to become his chief operating officer. Calamity famously ensued at Disney (DIS) when it quickly became clear that whatever gifts Ovitz had as a talent agent did not translate to running one of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates. Ovitz got a pink slip in the range of $100 million to $200 million.

You can fool all of the people who want to be fooled all of the time. In the recent election, we were a nation that desperately wanted to assign exclusively superhuman traits to Obama, just as Eisner did to Ovitz.

Obama's Ovitzian rise was predicated on largely immeasurable metrics. Indeed, the proof of Ovitz's power had been the utter impossibility of assessing it. He became the default explanation for a rapidly changing system where power had shifted from studios to talent. When he became COO of a publicly traded corporation, Ovitz was forced to deliver quantifiable results—which he couldn't do.

Similarly, with Obama, the proof that he was Abraham Lincoln incarnate was his virtual absence of a track record that contradicted the cultural desire to believe that this bright, attractive, charismatic blank slate was The Answer. Now that Obama has got the job, everything he does will be publicly calibrated somewhere along the genius-to-failure continuum.

Developing the Skill of Endurance

Truth be told, the kinds of slip-ups Obama faced this week are the rule of everyday leadership, not the exception. And when it comes to crisis management, contrary to the kind of slam-dunk bromides being taught in business school case studies about the "right way" and "wrong way" to handle PR messes, the realistic goal of a leader should be to make bad situations somewhat less bad, not make them seem superterrific.

At a news conference following Daschle's withdrawal, Obama, to his credit, conceded, "I think this was a mistake, I think I screwed up." Such immediate candor suggests a leader that has the capacity for personal growth and the flexibility necessary for effective leadership.

Moving forward, Obama will need to carefully dismantle (for storage) the messianic propaganda apparatus that abetted his election. This will mean balancing his force-of-nature vibe with the unglamorous, but more vital, crisis management skill of endurance. Think about the careers of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and, dare I say, Richard Nixon.

It will also mean either throttling back on all of this sanctimonious "transparency" talk or enforcing it ruthlessly. After all, now that Obama is President, transparency applies to him, too, not just the people he doesn't like.

I have not moved from my position that Obama has led a charmed life, the fruits of which are self-evident. Nevertheless, after more than 25 years of making my strange living in crisis management, I have found that the winners of a charmed adolescence can become the losers of a challenging adulthood. Obama's comfortable political adolescence is over.

If anybody has the potential to be tossed media valentines for character development, Obama does. But it's time to grow up and learn how to endure. This will mean accepting that having "screwed up" is the price of admission to Hope and Change.


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