The biggest job in the world

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Barack ObamaOn 20 January 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America, the eyes of the world turned towards Washington for someone to resolve their problems. But how will history regard him? Stephen Walker looks at the signposts to Obama's success or failure and the skills needed to succeed at the biggest job in the world.

We are in a period of 'Obama-mania' with the hopes of people all over the globe vested in the new US president. Now the presidency has started for real, the first 100 days are hugely important. Most people will forgive you and continue to believe for the first 100 days.

He is not short of problems to tackle: the economy, the environment, the Middle East and health to name but four. The problems are not his alone; he has to use his management skills to bring good solutions to the table, and his leadership skills to generate the public opinion to have them implemented.

Photo of Stephen Walker"As the senior team takes shape, the first clues of Obama's management style are emerging. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is informative and very clever. It's a big job and keeps a potential critic busy."

It goes without saying that Barack Obama needs good management skills and leadership ability. This takes us to the hoary question of the meaning of those two words. Google gives 961 million references for management and 187 million for leadership. Not a recipe for clarity of thought.
Let me add my definition by focusing on the outcomes of good management and leadership:

  • A good manager gets others to do good work
  • A good leader has eager followers
  • By definition a good manager manages his direct reports and will not bypass them to instruct their people. Good management is essentially restricted to a single step in the hierarchy.

    Good leadership will appeal to all with people buying into the goals of the organisation when the leader communicates effectively. Good leadership appeals to every level, and most importantly, a good leader will inspire his subordinates to make extraordinary efforts.

    The USA has well-established government processes, the Legislative, Judicial and Executive departments. In a sense the president is the CEO to his 'Cabinet of Directors'. It is his job to choose people to fill these roles and to manage their performance. All of this has to be done in the public eye and is subject to continuous review by the oversight bodies and the media. This amplifies mistakes and directly shapes the public perception of the president as a leader. Is perception everything?

    As the senior team takes shape, the first clues of Obama's management style are emerging. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is informative and very clever. It's a big job and keeps a potential critic busy. Is this a Machiavellian move to keep your friends close but your enemies closer perhaps? Retaining Robert Gates as Defence Secretary is the mark of someone keen on function over form. It is a popular move that will do no harm to Obama's leadership rating.

    The high hopes resting on President Obama remind me of the excitement of John F Kennedy's election. The hopes for the world seeped into my English childhood. JFK was an inspirational figure and the Peace Corps, which he boosted, gave the young the vision, the means and the hope to change the world.

    "The high hopes resting on President Obama remind me of the excitement of John F Kennedy's election."

    This JFK-like inspirational quote is taken from the Obama website: "I am asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real changes in Washington... I am asking you to believe in yours."

    President Obama holds up a promise of change, but is it all in his gift?

    Harold MacMillan (British Prime Minister 1957-1963), when asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, replied, "Events, my dear boy, events." President Obama faces some challenging events.

    The world has high hopes of the man. Please let us not be disappointed.

    After over 30 years of hands on business and academic experience, Stephen Walker co-founded Motivation Matters in 2004. The company is a management consultancy focused on improving people’s desire to perform well at their work. Motivation Matters works with organisations to improve the performance of their people through better management practice

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