October 31, 2008

Twelve Deadly Sins Of Leadership

A leader need not have all the answers to all of the problems that the leader must confront. This is to say, not personally. The point of leadership is that you are the one in charge of a team of people who do things. You can't do everything yourself; instead, you have to rely on others to do certain things for you. A good leader does not insist on holding a monopoly on good ideas. Your job is to get other people to do the things that need to be done. Your job is to set the agenda so that problems are solved and goals are reached. Your job is to identify those problems and determine those goals.

So I think Sister Toldjah got this one wrong. In microcosm, she takes a quote from Bill Clinton to indicate that as the financial crisis was running through its initial, scary, and confusing public stages, Barack Obama did not really know what the right response to it was. Instead, he saw his job as that of a salesman -- he would find a product somewhere and sell it. This, she implies, is a great gift to the Republicans because it exposes Obama as a poor and unintelligent leader. That is not a good read on the situation.

Now, there certainly are things to criticize about Obama with respect to this issue. Most prominently, Obama went to Bill Clinton for advice about how to solve the financial crisis. This, it seems to me, could very well be picking the wrong kind of assistance. President Clinton is certainly in a position to offer some insights about the Presidency based on his experience, but he was also blessed during his Presidency to have a thriving economy for nearly the entire time he was in office. Clinton never confronted a problem of the nature facing America now.

For more topical advice, Obama might want to look to George Bush The Elder instead -- the senior Bush confronted a serious recessions from 1990-1991 which resulted in a substantial and unprojected decrease in government revenue. This probably was his undoing because he could find no way out of the situation but to go back on his "Read my lips - no new taxes" campaign pledge. That Bush the Elder is a Republican was probably the stumbling block here; if that is right, Obama is guilty of letting his partisan affiliation get in the way of obtaining the information he needs, which is a form of picking the wrong kinds of assistance.

Another thing to take Obama to task for would be not ever moving into an action mode. I can't recall, off the top of my head, what Obama has actually suggested what, if anything, we should do in response to the credit and financial markets melting down. By "we," I mean any number of collective responses, whether it be as consumers, as stockholders, as citizens, or as a government. Obama has looked cool and in command but if he has put together any kind of a plan, I haven't seen or heard very much about it. While I don't discount the importance of inspiring confidence in the population to be led, valuing appearances over substance is something he might be able to get away with as a candidate for office, but he will not be able to afford such superficiality once he actually holds that office. So I think Obama can be legitimately criticized for not advancing any kind of a plan when confronted with the crisis.

This could have happened for a variety of reasons. One, he might still be trying to put a plan together. At this point, if that's what's going on, Obama may be guilty of paralysis by analysis. Second, and substantially related to the the previous pitfall, maybe he's got a plan but he's trying to make it be the best plan possible. This is a related pitfall, which is letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. In some situations (in fact, I would suggest "most" would be a better word than "some"), a mostly good but still somewhat flawed response timely made is better than a perfect response made too late.

Third, he may have found a plan but in his political judgment, it is unpopular and would hurt his chances of winning the election next week, which would indicate a lack of political courage. In my humble opinion, this is what's really going on. The sorts of policy proposals necessary to address the financial problem are politically unpalatable, and Obama doesn't want to disturb a favorable political dynamic by suggesting something unpopular unless he absolutely has to. And by one kind of political calculus, he doesn't absolutely have to advance unpopular ideas right now, because he's still only a candidate and only needs to project an image that inspires confidence in his ability to later come up with a plan.

A fourth possibility here might be that a plan with unpopular but necessary elements is something that he doesn't think he can sell, which would indicate an inability to persuade those he would lead that his plan is the right now. I rather doubt that Obama lacks the ability to persuade people of things -- he is an inspiring leader and a gifted communicator. But as he has pointed out himself, you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig afterwards.

Fifth, it could be that the people he's turned to for assistance have offered multiple and contradictory ideas, and are arguing amongst themselves. This would represent an unacceptable tolerance of discord within the team that in this case prevents the team as a whole from even formulating a coherent plan, much less attempting to act on it. Certainly, a difference of opinion between people can be used to test competing ideas; a debate is a crucible for those ideas and the ones that survive meaningful criticism are likely to be good ideas. But this decision-making aid does need to be controlled and an end must come to it -- eventually, the leader must decide which is the right decision, based on the merits of the ideas as tested in the crucible of competition. At that point, the leader's challenge is, as I've described above, getting the team to all buy in to the ideas (particularly the team members who had been proposing alternatives to the plan the leader settles on).

Finally, it's possible that despite having the ability to tap nearly the entire intelligentsia of the economic world (excepting only a few partisan economists and politicians who would be unwilling to work with him during the election) he has not yet put together any kind of a plan to respond to the crisis at all, which would represent a failure of imagination.

These are all flaws or failures as a leader which we could legitimately look to and criticize. It seems more likely than not that some combination of at least some of these things are going on. I think it is fair to acquit Obama of failure to appreciate the problem, since this problem is so obvious and has been in his face for so long now that a man of his intelligence and political acumen cannot possibly have seen it. Nor do I think that he can be said to have offered a misdirected response to the problem, since it seems to me he has offered little substantive response at all.

But I don't think that pointing out that Obama would go looking for advice about how to confront a complex problem is a bad thing. It's a good thing. Presiding over the macroeconomy is an extraordinarily complex thing. One can only presume that Obama solicited advice from people other than Clinton, too -- from his own economic policy advisors, at minimum. His job as a leader is to formulate a plan. If the problem arises in an area where he personally lacks expertise, then his job is to acquire enough knowledge to respond to the problem intelligently. That seems to me to be what Obama was doing. And I, for one, am glad that he is smart enough to know what he doesn't know and both humble and intellectually curious enough to seek advice and information from other people who may have better insights than he can cook up in his own skull.

To ask that the President, or in this case the President-elect (and he isn't even that just yet but can reasonably expect to be) come pre-armed with the kind of detailed knowledge necessary to confront an issue of this magnitude, and also come pre-equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy, and be an expert in the subtleties of Constitutional law and governmental mechanics, and know all of the functionally useless trivia that an eighteen-month political campaign demands (how many counties are there in Iowa? what's the third-largest circulation newspaper in New Hampshire? will Floridians like it or take offense if I eat a conch fritter?) is to demand an inhuman level of mental ability -- and to demand it come packaged in a politically savvy and personally scandal-free human being on top of all that is completely unreasonable. We are electing a President, not a demigod.

Let me suggest, then, that we not criticize Obama for not personally possessing sufficient personal expertise to respond, unaided, to a problem that has been (debatably) nearly fifty years in the making and which completely blindsided the very best brightest financial, economic, and political minds out there. He will have a Secretary of the Treasury and a variety of other policy experts as advisors to help him once he's President. Rather, let us take this opportunity to instead assess Obama's qualities as a leader, which is, after all, what we are about to select him to become.

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