With two wars to manage, the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and lagging confidence in the nation among its citizenry and around the world, President-elect Barack Obama faces enormously daunting challenges as he prepares to assume his new role.
If he is to make the transition from successful candidate to effective world leader, he must immediately begin thinking and acting in ways that even the most seasoned of senior leaders can struggle to embrace. To that end, he would do well to take a page from the playbooks of some of the best corporate leaders who have successfully steered their organizations through periods of turmoil and change.
Based on our experience at the Hay Group in studying and working with such leaders, we would advise the new President not to wait until his inauguration. He should immediately start taking the following six steps, so that by the end of his first 100 days in office he has established his credibility as a global leader and has begun moving the country forward:
1. Assume a dual leadership role of figurehead and visionary.
Unlike his predecessor, Obama can't merely be the "Decider." He must be viewed as the nation's leader—the face of the country—and he must own both the vision for the country and the responsibility for achieving it. That requires that he first have a vision, not merely the broad-stroked picture he has painted over the course of the past year, but a well-defined, detailed vision that includes what's in it for his various constituencies as well as what he needs from them.
He, not his cabinet, not his broader team of advisers, not his party, must ultimately own the vision and the responsibility for realizing it. Trite as "the buck stops here" may sound, it's worth repeating, given the finger-pointing and blame games that have been going on as of late in the halls of Congress, Corporate America, and even the White House.
2. Create a solid, sustained narrative to "sell" his vision and drive it forward.
Clearly, George Bush had a vision. But he lacked a consistent story line through which to convey that vision. What little narrative he provided was disjointed, reactive, and fear-based sound bites. Certainly the events of 9/11 helped shape his vision. But ultimately the President failed to move the story forward in a way that the country found sufficiently compelling and engaging to "buy" and follow. Nowhere has the lack of a story line been more obvious than during the current economic crisis, for which no true historical precedent exists and for which a plausible narrative has yet to be fully created.
Obama needn't be a Churchillian orator or a folksy storyteller in the mould of Ronald Reagan to communicate effectively with the American people. But he needs to create a narrative around his vision of the country and to tell it in a way that people both at home and abroad can relate to. And, it needs to be a positive story—realistic, certainly, but not of the Chicken-Little genre that tends to paralyze instead of energize.
3. Quickly grasp the scope, complexity, and diversity of his constituencies.
Until now, Obama has faced a diverse but single constituency: the American voter. Now, he must deal with a much broader, more complex set of constituents—from the American public, including those who did not vote for him, to America's enemies. If he is to be effective on the world stage, he must quickly identify these highly diverse constituents and grasp their needs and concerns so that he can build the strong collaborative relationships needed to move his vision forward.
Effective leaders, be they presidents or CEOs, are quick studies and are truly empathetic, which allows them to change their approach as necessary to engage more effectively with others and build strong relationships. We're not talking about pandering and "flip-flopping" but rather an ability to sense the nuanced differences among parties and to adapt one's approach and behavior accordingly.
Doing so allows one to clearly articulate a position in a way that will resonate and connect with others.
4. Maintain a healthy sense of curiosity and an openness for new ideas.
During times of conflict and change, the best CEOs and Presidents may be resolute, but they seldom are rigid. Rather, they tend to be lifelong "students of the world," continually learning as they lead. The best leaders are curious, seek out new ideas and information, and act on that newly acquired knowledge. It is an inquisitiveness balanced with a healthy dose of skepticism and reason.
5. Create an effective leadership team that can help drive his vision.
The role of President, like many CEO roles today, is simply too big for one person to execute, no matter how experienced or qualified. The best top leaders engage teams of bright, capable individuals to help them lead. We're not suggesting the President surround himself with "yes" people. For that matter, his closest advisers don't even need to be like-minded. Abraham Lincoln brought the country through a civil war with a cabinet that at best was cranky and contentious, comprised of a number of political foes.
Lincoln's genius was in his ability to channel and focus the diverse ideas and energies presented by that group. Likewise, President-elect Obama must "mine" his cabinet's knowledge, expertise, and opinions, know when to be empathetic and when to listen, when to let the members squabble and argue, and when to be tough and make them work together to drive his vision. He must, like Lyndon Johnson, know when to bully, when to cajole, and when, in the interest of the greater good, challenge his own beliefs.
6. Create a unique "Presidential" self-image.
One of the most difficult transitions many Presidents and top corporate leaders struggle with is embracing the uniqueness of the role in which they suddenly find themselves and making it their own. Ultimately one of Obama's biggest challenges—admittedly he has many—is to within the first 100 days of office, create and define his own Presidential persona. He must move from candidate, a role in which he has proved highly successful, to President of the U.S., a role that is far more challenging.
How successfully our new President executes these six steps will in many ways determine whether he can emerge as the great leader that so many voters are hoping for. While much has been made of Obama's so-called lack of experience, the fact remains that no individual—no matter how smart or experienced—is prepared for a role of such magnitude. It's simply too big and too complex to comprehend from a distance. And, as we've seen not only in the Oval Office, but also with seemingly increasing frequency in C-suites around the globe, using experience and expertise alone to identify the Next Great Leader is at best a crap shoot.
In today's complex environment, being a successful President or CEO requires a unique combination of attributes and actions such as those outlined here—those more subtle, more nuanced attributes and behaviors that although seldom identified as "deal-makers" by headhunters or handlers, ultimately determine success or failure, especially during times of change and uncertainty.