President Obama, Father-in-Chief?

When President Obama leaves a meeting to attend one of his daughters' soccer games, is he setting a good example for his staff or taking advantage of his position? Are there two codes of conduct—one for leaders and one for underlings? Thomas D. Kuczmarski, who teaches leadership and innovation in the executive education programs at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, recently spoke with Bloomberg BusinessWeek's Patricia O'Connell about values, boundaries between the personal and professional, and top-down vs. bottom-up leadership. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Patricia O'Connell: The New York Times recently ran a story about how President Obama schedules Presidential business—meetings with Congressional leaders, talks on health care—around such things as his daughters' band recitals and soccer games. What kind of message is he sending by doing that—to both the people who work for him and the people he works for, the U.S. citizens?

Thomas Kuczmarski: He's sending a very clear message. He is saying the family is a very important priority. The key to that is he is putting actions behind the words.

It makes me ill when I continue to hear senior level people in organizations say, "Well, you know I give my kids quality time." Quality time without sufficient quality doesn't really work. Doesn't matter who you are—a CEO or President of the U.S. You have different constituencies, and you have to serve them all.

Is it appropriate for a senior leader to be sending a strong message about personal values?

I think people erroneously try to separate their values into buckets—saying "these are my values at home, or as a person; these are my values and beliefs at work." [People have an idea] that these are supposed to be two totally different things, and they're not. … The values we have must transcend all of the pieces of our lives, and that's why it seems very appropriate to me that he is doing this—he's communicating his values.

So values should be consistent, but boundaries—about what we should or shouldn't be doing, how much we allow real life to interfere with work or vice versa—do those change depending on how high up one goes in an organization? Should they?

I think they do change, and I think they should. Instead of trying to have everything in balance on a daily basis, the higher up you go, and the more responsibility you have, and the more people you have responsibility for, the frame of reference changes. So it's not that you have to be at home every single night for dinner and playing with the kids, but over the course of a week, you have to feel that you've done it a few times a week, or whatever the minimal expectation is.

That's not an excuse to fall back into the quality-of-time excuse. But you can't go the other extreme.

Where does one draw the line between the personal and the professional? How do you decide between the kid's recital and a health-care summit?

Well, that's a good question. The real answer is that it's situational. It's also about scheduling. I probably wouldn't have scheduled an all-day meeting and then left in the middle of it.

If I'm in the middle of something that is really, really important, it's O.K. to tell my kids I missed something.

Is it O.K. to keep the Speaker of the House and everyone around until 1:30 in the morning because you took some personal time out, or does rank have its privileges, whether you're the President of the U.S. or the president of a company?

That's where it gets into the issue of consideration of others.

How does a leader do this without looking as if he or she is pulling rank?

The wrong mindset is: "Since I'm the boss, I get to do what I want and set my own schedule." The key to all of it is you have to be giving respect to all constituents.

How often do you find that people have double standards? You say to your team: "Of course you should leave early and spend time with your family, but I'm going to stay here and miss my time with my family?"

Whatever the leader is doing or saying is in effect the culture for the whole organization. President Obama better be ensuring that the people who report to him can do the same thing.

Any other thoughts about leading by example or setting or establishing boundaries?

Far too many people, leaders, don't have the foggiest idea what values mean or how you set them in the culture of the organization. If the leader doesn't know what the beliefs and values of his people are on an individual basis, there's no way he or she can respect their values.

How do I find out what their values are? And how do I let them know what the values of the organization are?

CEOs often think, wrongfully, that they will come in and define the values of the organization and tell people what they are and to go forth and live them. The values of an organization come from the bottom up rather than from the top down. An effective leader should find out what the values and beliefs of the organization are and do what is needed to help shape them in a way that enables the organization to succeed and its people to prosper.

You talked about bottom-up leadership. You also have top-down with leading by example. How do you reconcile the two?

The leader should not be the one saying, "here are the organization's values." Lots of times an organization's values are different from the leader's. Top-down and bottom-up come together when you find common values. Ultimately, if that is not possible, the leader will probably need to find another place to work.

Thomas D. Kuczmarski teaches leadership and innovation in the executive education programs at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He has written two books on leadership, including his most recent, Apples Are Square: Thinking Differently about Leadership (Kaplan), which he co-authored with his wife, Susan; and three books on innovation. He is the president and founder of the innovation firm Kuczmarski & Associates. He is also founder of the Chicago Innovation Awards, the major annual recognition of product and service innovation in the Chicago region.For more information about the Kellogg School of Management, including its MBA and its executive education programs, visit

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