Obama vs. Clinton: Leadership Styles

His approach of visionary leadership is appealing but risky. Her health-care reform managerialism already has been proven ineffective

The virtual dead heat in the Super Tuesday Democratic primary is being attributed by the punditocracy to the absence of any significant policy differences separating candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The two nonetheless have drawn clear distinctions between the ways in which they each propose to govern the nation, and those differences sound a lot like a rehashing of past debates about opposing styles of corporate leadership.

Senator Clinton (D-N.Y.) argues that the role of the President is not only to provide visionary leadership outward from the Oval Office to the nation and the world but also to control and direct the federal bureaucracy downward to ensure that policies are carried out faithfully and effectively.

In sharp contrast, Senator Obama (D-Ill.) declares he will do the chief executive's job by focusing completely on providing leadership vision, judgment, and inspiration. As for controlling the agencies that would report to him, he says he will delegate that responsibility. He pledges to stay above the managerial fray and, instead, hold agency heads fully accountable for the performance of the bureaucracies in their charge.

On one level, these visions seem to reflect a Carteresque tendency to micromanage (Clinton) and a Reaganesque organizational nonchalance (Obama). But each candidate is actually putting forth a well-reasoned philosophy of leadership, and their distinct approaches have implications for their respective abilities to deliver on the changes the majority of the nation seems to desire. From the vantage point of a business school professor, what is particularly striking is that the two candidates clearly articulate competing theories of leadership that have been the focus of much scholarly research over the last several decades; what I'll refer to as the "managerial" and "transformational" approaches.

Textbook Exercise

As Clinton reminds us, she has actual experience in the practice of the former. As head of the health-care reform initiative during her husband's first Administration, she conducted a near-textbook exercise in managerialism. She closeted for months in the White House with an impressive team of technocrats who thoroughly reviewed all the relevant data about the U.S. health-care system, analyzing various and opposing views about what should be done to improve its performance, and bringing forth a highly detailed national health-care plan. In assembling that complex plan, the technocrats included ideas from numerous, conflicting ideological and professional camps, assuming what they each would need to have in the plan in order to support it.

But instead of building a consensus for change, this exercise actually created deep dissatisfaction among all the relevant constituencies needed to enact the proposed legislation. By deciding what these players required without involving them in the process, the technocrats built resistance to the very changes they proposed. The result: gridlock and, subsequently, a dozen years of a worsening health-care crisis.

It is noteworthy that while claiming the mantle of experience, Clinton has not spelled out what lessons she learned from this lost opportunity. Based on the detailed policy positions the wonks on her campaign staff have put forward on every conceivable national issue, it would appear that she is still of the managerialist persuasion.

That's not surprising. After all, managerialism was, until relatively recently, the dominant school of thought in the corporate world as well. Influenced heavily by the quantitative techniques developed by Robert McNamara's Whiz Kids at the Pentagon and Ford Motor (F), it was promulgated at the nation's leading B-schools and, in the 1970s and '80s, led not only to the wide-scale practice of management science in business organizations but also to the creation of large, centralized planning staffs and the top-down leadership methods known collectively as "change management."

Micromanagement Misfires

As attractive as it once may have seemed to put the best and brightest technocrats in the corporate driver's seat, managerialist approaches seldom worked well in practice. In particular, top-down efforts to micromanage corporate change have proved almost totally ineffective. An impressive body of research and well-documented case studies of large corporations reveal few instances in which a CEO successfully transformed an organization by preparing detailed blueprints for change and then directing the implementation of those plans downward through the ranks.

Instead, when successful transformations have occurred, it has almost always been the result of leaders who offer inspiring visions and values, identify clear goals, and then provide the context and opportunity for those below them to participate in the design and implementation of the actual business of change. That's why, in general, leaders of large corporations have moved away from top-down "planned change," and, instead, adopted a values-based, decentralized approach to organizational transformation.

And that brings us to the kind of President that candidate Obama proposes to be. As a student of U.S. Constitutional history, the senator's philosophy seems to have been influenced by some of the few words the founders ever wrote with specific regard to leadership. Significantly, they confined their remarks to the task of visionary leadership and were silent on the issue of management.

In The Federalist, James Madison wrote that the nation's leaders need to listen intently to the expressed desires of the public, but should not be prisoners to the public's literal demands. Instead, leaders in a democracy should "discern the true interests" and common needs of the people and then "refine the public view" in a way that transcends the surface noise of pettiness, contradiction, and self-interest.

Common Values

To appreciate what that means in practice, it is worth reading Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 "New Nationalism" speech. Delivered in a Kansas cornfield, T.R. addressed the specific and legitimate interests and needs of industrialists, farmers, financiers, laborers, small business owners, and conservationists, showing equal respect for each of their competing values and claims.

But he didn't stop there. Roosevelt then elevated the discussion by offering a transcendent vision of a good society that encompassed those conflicting values in a way that each group alone was unable to articulate from their narrower perspectives. He thus showed the nation the way forward by identifying the overarching values the disparate, warring special interests had in common, creating a compelling vision of a better future than one that could be achieved by continuing conflict.

What Roosevelt did not do is spell out the particulars of how that would be done. Instead, he outlined the basic conditions under which it could be done. He realized the key to implementation was the involvement and participation of all the relevant constituencies. This values-based approach to leadership is particularly appropriate when followers are deeply divided by ideology, religion, and ethnic backgrounds, as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel each demonstrated in complex situations during troubled times in their respective homelands. Corporate leaders have also discovered that this approach is the most effective way to lead complex organizations in turbulent environments.

What kind of national leadership does the U.S. need in the next four years? That is what voters must ultimately decide in the remaining primaries and in the final test in November. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated that she has experience using the managerialist approach. On the other, it is uncertain whether Barack Obama is capable of transformational leadership because it is not something that can be practiced in a deliberative body like the Senate. And all history tells us is that occupants of the Oval Office either rise to the challenge or they don't. It is never known in advance if an untested President will turn out to be a Roosevelt or a Harding.

Hence, betting on a candidate's ability to provide transformational leadership entails an element of risk. Yet, judging from what we've seen in both the national and corporate arenas, there's a relatively high degree of certainty that managerialist leadership is unlikely to achieve the deep changes for which the nation's voters are calling.

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