Collaboration: Obama's Best Bet

To forge an economic recovery, Obama must harness Americans' energy by stressing the nation's common purpose

As he prepares for his transition to the White House, Barack Obama faces the massive challenge of reinvigorating the reeling U.S. economy. That task is hard enough. It could become even more difficult if he struggles with a second major hurdle: uniting a nation that is sharply divided between loyalists of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Obama's success over the long term and his legacy will depend on how effectively he bridges this political divide. His party controls Congress. He can steamroll opponents if he chooses. Let's hope he doesn't. He'll need the best efforts and support of both sides to solve the many serious challenges America faces today.

Collaboration is his best option. It's a skill that gets talked about a lot in politics and business. In fact, more than 90% of global executives surveyed last year by the Center for Creative Leadership said collaboration is vital for leadership success. But less than half of those same executives said the leaders in their organizations were actually good at it. That's an alarming discrepancy, one that offers President-elect Obama a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate collaboration on a national scale.

Recent CCL research explored the keys to leading men and women of varying histories, cultures, and views. Let's explore three critical elements of those research findings and their implications for leading a divided nation.

First, creating interaction among diverse parties is critical.

Now more than ever, it's important for Obama to bring together people with different outlooks so they can move past the hostile rhetoric on both sides. He can start by building a Presidential Cabinet of the very best talent among liberals, moderates, and conservatives. It has been reported that Obama admires Doris Kearns Goodwin's superb book Team of Rivals. That's encouraging news. Goodwin's book explores how Abraham Lincoln invited—indeed begged—many of his harshest rivals and critics to serve in his Cabinet after winning the Presidency in 1860. Why? Because he believed the country needed their wisdom and leadership skills to complement his.

Nelson Mandela took a similar approach. After being released from prison in 1990, he met South African President F.W. de Klerk to discuss how to move their country forward. Mandela brought to de Klerk's home a diverse 11-person delegation that included whites, Africans, Indians, and others. As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter discusses in her excellent book Confidence, Mandela later made inclusiveness and collaboration a hallmark of his tenure as South Africa's first democratically elected President.

It's not a coincidence that Mandela ultimately succeeded in taking on two huge challenges: strengthening bonds between his country's white and black communities and leading a downtrodden economy toward recovery. Like Lincoln, he recruited the best talent wherever it happened to sit on the political and cultural spectrum. President-elect Obama should not delegate this work to others. He should also set the expectation that his cabinet members are as invested in this endeavor as he is.

The second leadership element for bridging divides: Put U.S. values on a pedestal.

At its best, the U.S. has long treasured—and demonstrated for the rest of the world—some fundamental cultural cornerstones, namely respect, fairness, and inclusiveness. These are values that by their very nature foster collaboration. Regardless of their politics, men and women can usually agree on the importance of these values—and, more often than not, they respond to them. That's frankly how the U.S. has thrived for so long despite a long history of social, economic, and military challenges. In practice, this means Obama must listen carefully to the concerns of Republicans and Democrats alike, recognizing the tension between the groups and their important contributions.

Then he can go to all sides for counsel on rejuvenating our economy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped into these values after taking direct control of New York's public schools. His makeover of the education system, developed in concert with schools chancellor Joel Klein, created controversy. It made the effectiveness of principals and other top administrators—rather than classroom teachers—the focal point of reform. Bloomberg and Klein took some real heat for this approach from teachers and parents. Still, they patiently explained their case, listened to the opposition, and negotiated to keep teachers on board. As former New York Mayor Ed Koch told U.S. News & World Report, "Bloomberg's not a charismatic figure, but he has a common decency and calm demeanor that allow him get things done without raising tensions." He's able, in other words, to live the values most needed to bridge a gulf of disagreement.

Finally, here's a third element of leading across divides: Make the mission foremost.

Obama will need to get Americans focused on a common and inspiring mission that reminds them of the identity they share as a people. John F. Kennedy famously rallied Americans with his challenge to put an American on the moon within a decade. It was a clear, focusing goal that appealed to Americans of every political persuasion during the Cold War. Obama will need to find something similar, if not perhaps quite as spectacular, to help Americans celebrate their similarities.

Early in his career, for example, Mandela made it his mission to eradicate prejudice in his native land. He started by learning Afrikaans, the language of white South Africa, so he could get a better sense of the worldview of his oppressors. He even learned about rugby so he could discuss it with them. As Time magazine's Richard Stengel recently wrote, "Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the victims of prejudice themselves: The British government and the white English settlers looked down on them." Over time, Mandela persuaded his countrymen to put aside their biases and focus on a greater goal: making South Africa a nation of opportunity for everyone. He came up with a clear mission, and people understood its benefits.

Obama will need to reach out in similar fashion. His party has been entrusted with great power and believes it knows what is right for America. But Republicans believe themselves to be every bit as dedicated to America's success as their Democratic colleagues—and they are. We can all agree that America needs to go on an extended winning streak. If Obama can harness the energy and good ideas on all sides, he will build an incredible and enduring legacy that benefits us all.

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