December 25, 2009

Why Obama Is Failing as a Leader (Two Articles and a Theory)

I originally wrote this post for my Integral Options Cafe blog, where I generally assume that most of my regular readers are familiar with integral theory (the Ken Wilber version, among many others) and Spiral Dynamics (both the Beck and Cowan versions). But one need not be too familiar with those models to make sense of this article.

My basic point is that Obama is at a unique developmental stage in the lineage of our presidents, which gives him some strengths and weaknesses that have so far made him an ineffective leader (in my opinion, and that of many others).

* * * * *

Why Obama Is Failing as a Leader (Two Articles and a Theory)

So, when we elected a man who is transitioning from Orange to Green (pardon the Spiral Dynamics speak, but it helps to make sense of why Obama is failing as a leader), the conservative opposition referred to him as too soft (read: feminine) to lead, as a socialist, and/or as a globalist. Mostly, they disliked him because his values are different than theirs, which makes him inherently wrong in their eyes.

To understand where Obama is developmentally, it helps to have a good model, such as Spiral Dynamics. SD offers a biopsychosocial stage model of personal and cultural development.

Here are the key stages we see in the majority of people in America:

What people in each world seek out in life…

PURPLE Placate spirit realm; honor ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds.
RED Power/action; asserting self to dominate others; control; sensory pleasure.
BLUE Stability/order; obedience to earn reward later; meaning; purpose; certainty.
ORANGE Opportunity/success; competing to achieve results; influence; autonomy.
GREEN Harmony/love; joining together for mutual growth; awareness; belonging.

Here are some of Chris Cowan’s (co-founder of the Spiral Dynamics model) conceptions of stage-shifts we see right now in various areas of our society and around the world:

Many business people are in the ORANGE-TO-GREEN transition seeking a return to more community and spirit in their lives.

A number of politicians are in the BLUE-TO-ORANGE range trying to move from structured bureaucracy to entrepreneurism and free markets.

Many activists are living in the GREEN-TO-YELLOW zone as they work to achieve positive results on a human scale through interaction, involvement, and purposeful learning and teaching.

Some developing regions are still in the PURPLE-TO-RED transition as ancient tribal ways confront well-armed dictators, while others are in the RED-TO-BLUE as centralized authority tries to contain factional battles.

Keep these ideas in mind as I cite some material from two recent articles. One from AlterNet (Is Obama’s Problem That He Just Doesn’t Want to Deal with Conflict? by Drew Westen) and one from US News & World Report (Critics Say Obama Lacks Emotion, by Kenneth T. Walsh). In a sense, these articles are offering two different perspectives on the same issue.

First, from Weston, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (right now only $5.66), since his argument is longer and more complex:

What’s costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.

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Consider the president’s leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there’s a conflict, because if there’s a conflict, he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it.

* * *

This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can’t tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.

We have seen the same pattern of pretty speeches followed by empty exhortations on issue after issue. The president has, on more than one occasion, gone to Wall Street or called in its titans (who have often just ignored him and failed to show up) to exhort them to be nice to the people they’re foreclosing at record rates, yet he has done virtually nothing for those people.

* * *

It’s his job to lead us out of it, not to run from it. It’s his job to make the tough decisions and draw lines in the sand. But Obama really doesn’t seem to want to get involved in the contentious decisions. They’re so, you know, contentious. He wants us all to get along. Better to leave the fights to the Democrats in Congress since they’re so good at them.

* * *

The second problem relates to the first. The president just doesn’t want to enunciate a progressive vision of where this country should be heading in the 21st century, particularly a progressive vision of government and its relation to business. He doesn’t want to ruffle what he believes to be the feathers of the American people, to offer them a coherent, emotionally resonant, values-driven message — starting with an alternative to Ronald Reagan’s message that government is the problem and not the solution — and to see if they might actually follow him.

* * *
The problem with the president’s strategic team is that they don’t understand the difference between compromising on policy and compromising on core values. When it comes to policies, listen all you want to the Stones: “You can’t always get what you want” (although it would be nice if the administration tried sometime). But on issues of principle — like allowing regressive abortion amendments to be tacked onto a health care reform bill — get some stones. Make your case to the American people, make it evocatively, and draw the line in the sand. That’s how you earn people’s respect. That’s the only thing that will bring Independents back.

And that’s where the problem of message comes in. This White House has no coherent message on anything. The message on health care reform changed even more frequently than the interest rates on credit cards last Spring, and turned a 70-30 winning issue into its current 30-50 status with the public.

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And capping off all of these aspects of the president’s leadership style is his preference for the lowest common denominator. That means you don’t really have to fight, you don’t have to take anybody on, you don’t take any risks. You just find what the public is so upset about that even the Republicans would stipulate to it if forced to (e.g., that excluding people from health care because they have “pre-existing conditions” is something we can’t continue to tolerate) and build it into whatever plan the special interests can hammer out around it.

Unfortunately, what Democrats just can’t seem to understand is that the politics of the lowest common denominator is always a losing politics. It sends a meta-message that you’re weak — nothing more, nothing less — and that’s the cross the Democrats have had to bear since they “lost China” 60 years ago. And in fact, it is weak.

* * *
Obama, like some many Democrats in Congress, has fallen prey to the conventional Democratic strategic wisdom: that the way to win the center is to tack to the center.

But it doesn’t work that way.

You want to win the center? Emanate strength. Emanate conviction. Lead like you know where you’re going (and hopefully know what you’re talking about).

That should give you a good sense of how Obama looks to the political center at this point in his presidency, and it is not good. In a similar line of thought, Walsh looks at Obama’s apparent aloofness, a strong quality to some in his inner circle, but not to most Americans.

President Obama is a cool customer. He doesn’t seem to get really angry, depressed, or frustrated or to lose control of his emotions.

And that’s the problem. To some of his supporters, Obama is presiding over a passionless presidency. He seems too cerebral and per­sonally disengaged from the problems of everyday Ameri­cans.

* * *

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says, “He doesn’t get real high or real low.” Gibbs adds that Ameri­­cans should be comforted by Obama’s steadi­ness.

When emotions well up, Obama prefers to be alone with his thoughts.

* * *
Obama recently told 60 Minutes that he considered his December 1 speech at West Point announcing the surge “probably the most emotional speech that I’ve made.” Yet his feelings were not very much in evidence. He came across as almost totally analytical.

The problem comes not when a presi­dent shows emotion but when he goes overboard. Americans want to know that their leader shares their emotions at times of tragedy, sorrow, or outrage. And that emotional side is something that Obama has yet to fully communicate.

Again, not a flattering take on a man who so many of us placed our hope in as a new kind of leader, a seemingly passionate man who would bring integrity and compassion to the White House.

So, how we can account for the difference between the electric speaker who ignited such enthusiasm as a candidate, and the man who now stands (so far) as a bitter disappointment?

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