The Obama Trap

Last Updated Aug 11, 2009 8:45 AM EDT

Any aspiring leader should study Obama carefully, and make sure they do not fall into the hole he has been digging for himself.

Obama clearly likes to be liked. Like all politicians, he needs popularity. No popularity means no votes, means no power. But Obama took it to the limit. He was so successful at courting popularity that I risked a lynching the one time I suggested in public that he might not be a saint who can walk on water and save the planet before tea time.

To start with, everything went well. He got elected and got sky high approval ratings. But his problems started with his success. By promising "change" and "yes we can" he allowed everyone to imagine that he would deliver on all their desires. By the time he tried to tone down the rhetoric, it was too late: expectations had been set. His challenges with health reform are the challenges that any President would face. For Obama the challenges are toxic: if he can not deliver then all the trust and belief he nurtured so well will vanish.

The two traps he set for himself were traps which business leaders, who do not need to chase election, can avoid:


  • First, do not try to court popularity. Popularity leads to weakness: you will always be looking to accommodate other people on their agendas, needs and priorities. You will get nowhere. Instead of courting popularity, seek respect. Show that you can be trusted; show that you are selfless and be prepared to have difficult but constructive conversations when you need to. Then you can promote your priorities as opposed to bowing to colleagues' priorities.
  • Second, do not over-promise. Set expectations realistically: be clear about budget commitments, promotion and bonus potential for team members, timing of projects and other public promises. The simple mantra is "under-promise, over-deliver", which is the opposite of what most politicians do. If you over-promise and under-deliver, a wave of initial enthusiasm (for your promises) will turn into cynicism and mistrust when you fail to deliver. Obama has his work cut out in climbing the slippery slope back to credibility and trust.
  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership