Leadership Styles – a look at Obama and the other contenders

With the inauguration fresh on my mind, I thought I’d dust off some notes I made earlier in the campaign, before Obama had wrapped it up. First published on my intranet blog in May.

If I can manage to take the politics out of it, I think we can study the 2008 election as a classic contrast in leadership styles. In response to 7 years of rule by a CEO-style president, one who made decisions quickly, held his convictions in spite of public pressure, controlled all messaging and delegated tasks out to his team, we have been faced this primary season with a choice of three candidates who exhibit entirely different qualities.

One is a proven legislator known for compromise across the aisle, with an untouchable war record and painful personal experiences that influence his approach to many of the issues of the day. Like Bush, he’s been known to hold doggedly to unpopular convictions. Some suggest he’s been around long enough that it’s his turn to stand in line for president.

Another is a former first lady-turned-legislator who has mastered the ability to change shape to suit her circumstances. We’ve seen her as powerful lawyer, loyal wife, pained victim, champion of women’s rights, indignant mother, and blue collar worker. Her approach allows her to respond quickly to new challenges, but her past doesn’t seem to give any indication of the direction she’ll head tomorrow.

The third is an entirely different creature, and I admit I’m fascinated. A lifelong Republican, I’m strangely drawn to a man who was identified as the most liberal legislator in the Senate, based on voting record. There’s something about this man that generates response more like a rock star than a politician. Fast Company in April 2008 featured an analysis of the Obama brand and noted how he has tapped the imagination of the younger generations through technology and giving away his brand through viral marketing and social networking.

In particular, I want to focus on their analysis of his leadership style. Author Ellen McGirt quotes Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and self-proclaimed independent: “I see him as a leader rather than a boss. A boss can order you to do things, sure, but you do them because it’s part of the contract.” In contrast, a leader is one who uses inspiration, respect and trust to motivate others to do things on their own. McGirt goes on to say, “There have long been leaders who are bosses, and bosses who are leaders. Having a vision and inspiring or instructing others to follow that vision have long been hallmarks of business and politics. But Obama epitomizes a new way of thinking called ‘adaptive leadership.’”

“Adaptive leadership.” What’s the difference between that and Hillary’s all-things-for-all-people approach? Ironically for a candidate who draws crowds in the tens of thousands, it’s less about the central figure than either model employed by his competitors. It’s about inclusion and influence rather than control and direction. For instance, Obama’s use of the “Yes we can” slogan, the way he brings people to the table to talk and the way he has spurred the involvement of masses of young people. Rather than act like an imperial CEO, Marty Linsky says, “Obama often proposes process plans that involve a trust in the community at large.”

As many Boomers conclude that he’s being vague and indecisive, they can’t understand why he’s a hit with younger voters. “Obama, through his inclusive Web site and, yes, his lofty rhetoric, reinforces the notion that everyone is included and that this movement is actually a conversation to which everyone is invited.”

1 thought on “Leadership Styles – a look at Obama and the other contenders

  1. Interesting to go back and read this assessment of President Obama after six years in office. I think he moved away from this leadership style he was hinting at during the campaign. What do you think? Has he continued to demonstrate “adaptive leadership,” or has his style morphed?

    (Please keep the discussion related to his leadership style, not his politics. I don’t want to get into that side. But I do think it’s notable if the “leader of the free world” models a significantly new way of leading.)

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