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7 Leadership Lessons From Obama's First Two Years in Office

Obamas First Two Years in OfficeIf nothing else, we can all agree that the past two years have been remarkably tumultuous in Washington. Admittedly, I didn't see it coming. While the economic challenges were huge, Barack Obama had run a masterful campaign and appeared to have the wind as his back.

Wrong. Who would have thought that, just two years later, after passing all kinds of ground-breaking legislation that definitely brought "change" to Washington, Americans would react the way they did on election night. And make no mistake, yesterday's results were a referendum against the policies of the Obama administration and his democratic-run congress.

But before republicans pat themselves on the back, remember that this is just another swing of the pendulum. It wasn't that long ago that the nation reacted similarly to the policies of the Bush administration.

In any case, there's clearly a very large gap between "Obama the campaigner" and "Obama the leader." The former promised change in leadership and captured the hearts and minds of Americans, while the latter failed to deliver on that promise. There are big lessons here that we, as managers and leaders, can all learn from:

  1. Anyone can be a one-hit-wonder. No matter how brilliant, how spectacular an ascent to power, how highly acclaimed, the world is full of one-hit wonders. CEOs, political leaders, business leaders make a huge splash and, the next thing you know, everyone's wondering what ever happened to that guy. The reason is simple: failure to deliver on the promise.
  2. Change management is really tough stuff. If you're going to hang your hat on a big change, you'd sure as hell better deliver. For example, if you say you're going to end partisan politics, bridge both sides of the isle, and bring transparency to Washington, then doing exactly the opposite is a very bad idea. And shoving Obamacare down American's throats was not effective change management.
  3. There's more to being a great speaker than just sounding like a great speaker. President Obama isn't the orator that most people seem to think he is. When he's campaigning, sure, he's definitely got oratory skills. But when it comes to leading and influencing, he tends to talk down from a lofty perch, leaving the audience feeling disconnected and adrift.
  4. When you think you've got a mandate, you'd better be right. There's a fine line between balance of power and stalemate, and I guess Washington will be trying to establish that fine line during the next two years of a split congress. But when you've got all the power and you think you've got a mandate, you'd damn well better be right. It certainly appears that Obama and congress misread the needs and wants of their constituents.
  5. Prioritize and focus. To me, the first two years of this administration felt like a breathless sprint to the finish line, to get as much legislation passed as humanly possible. Everything had such an over-the-top sense of urgency that there was never enough time to debate or even read the bill, for that matter. Clearly, the Obama administration bit off too much. Not only that, but jobs and the economy should have been priorities one, two and three.
  6. In America, business trumps ideology. Nobody's interested in ideology when they're losing their jobs and their homes. The only exception is that we all feel strongly about our freedom and leaving this place in better shape than we found it. The policies of this administration not only failed to deliver jobs and boost the economy, but they mortgaged our nation's future in their mad rush to pass groundbreaking legislation.
  7. Leaders and managers must surround themselves with star players. Leaders may be the lightening rod, but their teams do much of the heavy lifting. By all accounts from both sides of the isle, from communications on healthcare and stimulus to failed promises about unemployment and the economy, Obama's team of advisors and czars failed to provide the expertise he needed to deliver the results he promised.
You know, I'm certainly no expert on politics, but over the past two years it has seemed abundantly clear, at least to me, that we were seeing a failure of leadership in Washington. What do you think?

Image CC 2.0 courtesy Flickr user Jason McHuff

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