Barack Obama – The first 90 days must set the tone

Since there is officially no other news apart from Barack Obama’s victory, I thought I’d better write something about it.

At the moment, the world is heaping praise on him but only the churlish and over-cynical would deny that this is a symbolic moment. Until relatively recently, like earlier this year, the received wisdom was that America’s racial divide was so strong that it would never elect a black president and that many of those who said they would vote for Obama were, in fact, lying to the pollsters. On Tuesday, those fears were shown to be unfounded.

OK, some of Obama’s victory must be down to the unpopularity of the Bush administration but for America to elect a black Democrat by such a convincing margin means that some deep-rooted attitudes must have shifted in the past few years. It is, therefore, not surprising that so many people have gone overboard with the hero-worship.

Even the usually sober and conservative-leaning historian Naill Freguson is uncharacteristically gushing. Writing in today’s Daily Mail (yes, the Daily Mail!) he says:

There are moments  –  the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela  –  when history leaps and the heart leaps with it.

Just a few days before Barack Obama’s epoch-making election victory on Tuesday, a friend in New York e-mailed me A Change Is Gonna Come, a wonderfully apposite track by the Sixties soul singer, Sam Cooke:

I was born by the river in a little tent

Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since.

It’s been a long, a long time comin’

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

As I listened to those words, sung by Cooke with heart-rending pathos, I suddenly realised that there were tears pouring down my face. 

After which, Niall shouts, “Halleluya”, claps his hands and breaks into a gospel song.

Well, actually, I made that last bit up. In fact he spends the rest of the article using his considerable knowledge and intellect to rationalise his emotional response. Just like you see executives doing all the time at work.

But, while any student of leadership knows that symbolism is important, it is not enough on its own. Charisma and the right words can move people so far but, after a while, they begin to look at what you do as well as what you say. We know that this is true in organisations. Last year’s survey by Towers Perrin found that employees are increasingly paying attention to the behaviour of senior leaders. Not only their rhetoric but also their actions are under ever greater scrutiny from the shop floor. People now have much higher expectations of their bosses. All leaders, whether in business or politics, must understand that any gap between words and deeds will not go unnoticed.

When he was perhaps in a more level-headed mood a month ago, Niall Ferguson sounded a cautionary note after fellow TV historian Simon Schama had heaped effusive praise on Obama:

One day in the not too far distant future, when Obama stands revealed as the Chicago-schooled politico that he is – when he has to do more than make grand speeches, but has to make tough choices – these passages may read a little like old teenage love letters.

And so might Mr Ferguson’s article in the Mail.

He is right though. Eventually all leaders have to get down to delivery.

In a timely post, Robin has some research on why new leaders fail.

One of the main reasons people fail is that they apply the same approach and the same behaviour that made them successful in their last role. It’s only natural — very few people persist in things that fail or stop doing things that succeed. The psychologist Edward Thorndike called this the Law of Effect. We call it common sense.

But new leaders have to think beyond the formula: performance leads to results. They now have to consider another ‘p’, perception, and another ‘r’, relationships.

Your success in a job, especially in the first 90 days, depends to a large degree on how you are perceived by others. Perceptions of you are principally based on your observed behaviour — what you say, what you do, what decisions you make, how you react to situations, how you treat people. You are what people perceive you to be. Individuals who fail to understand that limit their career potential severely.

The higher up the leadership ladder you move the more the things you say and do are scrutinised and magnified. As Niall FitzGerald, deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters, once said: “One of the things that leaders don’t fully recognise is that when they speak or act, they are speaking into an extraordinary amplification system.”

Actions to which you may pay little attention will be subject to interpretation — and misinterpretation.

Well Barack Obama is now speaking into the biggest amplification system in the world. If he so much as farts in the wrong place, the whole world will know about it.

But there’s another piece to the jigsaw too.

Leadership implies getting other people to do things. But “followership” is not the pure reciprocal of leadership. Getting things done depends on a lot of people other than direct reports. Without the support and advice of individuals in different parts of the business, it would be impossible to work through the obstacles that systems, processes, procedures and interest groups create. Every successful manager knows there is a formal structure and an informal one — and it is the informal one that actually makes things work.

Research into why new leaders fail shows they don’t know who they should be creating relationships with and, more than 75 per cent of the time, they haven’t got a clear idea of what behaviour’s expected and what is censured.

Barack Obama is polished and clearly knows how to behave (my fart joke was a bit of juvenile flippancy) but who he gets working with him and the relationships he builds in America and around the world will be crucial to his success. Bush ended up with crap people around him, after the good ones like Colin Powell quit, and his relationships with the rest of the world are in ruins. Obama will not be able to lead in the same way. America and the rest of the world have moved on from that.

As Robin says, the first 90 days will be crucial. During that time, Barack Obama will need to show what sort of a leader he is and build the relationships that will secure him in office. Expectations are high and a lot of people will be disappointed. How he handles this disappointment and the criticism that follows will define him as a leader.

By Robin’s reckoning, and I think he’s right, if Obama is to be a successful leader, by 20th April next year we should have some clear indications of what he will do, how he will do it and the alliances he will build to help him make it all happen.

I will stick a note in my diary to write a review next April. It’s going to be an interesting few months.

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4 Responses to Barack Obama – The first 90 days must set the tone

  1. jameshigham says:

    At the moment, the world is heaping praise on him

    I’m most certainly not and this is a good take, Rick, well detailed.

  2. Apart from when Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency, I can’t think of a time in living memory (yes, I have lived that long) when the job was so demanding. With the world moving into a deepening recession, Iraq remaining a running sore. Iran looking as though it’s heading for another political upheaval, Israel and Palestine still banging at each other, and oil prices, low at the moment, looking to climb back up, the job of the president will need a major re-think. Obama is highly intelligent (unlike W) and intelligence remains a major factor of performance. But does he have a political philosophy or will he fall into the poll-driven decision making mire? I am going to buy his books. I shall give you a review when I’ve read them.

    PS And, if asked, I can tell you how Truman got to be president. I have it from FDR’s son, personally.

  3. Rick says:

    Bloody Hell. You really have lived that long.

  4. jonathan says:

    nice piece. I think obama is a little too smart to repeat Brown’s
    “look, I have only been in the job a week” gaff

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