A Coaching Plan for Obama’s Second Term

Posted 11.09.2012

This post is based on a presumptuous and preposterous premise which is that I’d have the opportunity to coach the President of the United States. One of the occupational hazards of being an executive coach is that I have this habit of thinking about leaders in the public eye and asking myself, “How would I coach that person?” Naturally, in the wake of his re-election, my attention has landed on President Obama.  If Mitt Romney had won, I’d most likely be thinking about how I’d coach him.  Game planning how I’d coach the President is a harmless little exercise that gets my brain going and has no actual impact on national security.

In the hope that some of my thoughts might be useful to leaders who aren’t charged with leading the free world but are facing some significant new challenges nonetheless, here are some questions and frameworks I’d share with the President to help put together a coaching plan:

Two of my favorite question sets to ask at the beginning of a coaching engagement are:

1.     What are you trying to accomplish? If you were wildly successful, what would things look like at the end? What would be people be knowing, doing, believing, thinking or feeling that they aren’t today?

My goal with these kinds of questions is to help the client paint the fullest picture possible of their desired future state. These are the results that we’ll want to align the coaching against. That sets us up for the second question set which is:

2.     So, how do you need to show up to make those outcomes likely? What are the main points you need to make? How do you need to make them in terms of your energy level, your tone of voice, your body language and other non-verbal factors? Who are the main people you need to partner with? Who has to be convinced? How does your approach change from person to person or group to group?

The point of questions like these is to get the client past the script to the way the script is delivered. As we talk, I look for patterns and themes in my client’s responses that we can work with and build on. I’m also listening for what’s not said and point out to the client what I’m not hearing and asking if those things might be important as well.

All of that conversation generates a lot of data. It’s usually too much to act on all at once so we need to use some frameworks to help structure the thinking and sequence the action that results from it. In the case of the President, I’d probably use the model of resonant (they establish connection) and dissonant (if overused, they create disconnection) leadership styles outlined by Dan Goleman and his colleagues in numerous articles on emotional intelligence and in his book Primal Leadership.

With a bit of paraphrasing, here’s a quick look at the model and how I’d use it in coaching the President.

First, there are four Resonant leadership styles:

Visionary: This style turns on painting a compelling picture of the future and making it clear to people how they can participate in it. One of the criticisms of the President in his campaign is he didn’t say what he wanted to do with the next four years. This is a style that he’ll probably want to use very soon as he sets the agenda for his second term.

Democratic: This is democratic with a small d, not a large D. It’s the style of soliciting input before decisions are made while reserving the right as the leader to make the decision yourself. By a lot of accounts, President Obama is skilled in this approach (see Mark Bowden’s reporting in Vanity Fair on the bin Laden raid for an example). On the other hand, it might be an overused strength for him. As I wrote here back in 2009, in the stimulus and health care debates, Obama seemed to turn over too much of the decision making to Congress. This is a style that he’ll probably want to dial back in a second term.

Coaching: Part of this style involves motivating the team.  As I wrote in a post on how to give a pep talk, Obama can be great at this. This style also involves developing people. Obama has shown he can put a great team together (and in this talk with his campaign staff on November 7 explains why that matters to him) but the President of the United States doesn’t have a lot of extra time for coaching people to higher levels of performance. He should hire the very best people available, point them in the right direction and make sure he’s getting the results he expects.

Affiliative: This style is about establishing personal connection with people to build the relationships that make results possible. At the beginning of his first term, Obama had football parties at the White House for members of Congress but stopped doing things like that pretty early on. He’s taken some criticism for the number of rounds of golf he’s played by himself or with just a few close friends. The reporting suggests he doesn’t spend much time schmoozing foreign leaders. Everyone needs some alone time. The President could probably benefit, though, by using his personal charm and the trappings of his office to practice a more affiliative style with the people he needs to help get things done.

There are two dissonant styles that have their uses, but if overused can create disconnection with people:

1. Commanding: So, obviously, the President is the Commander in Chief. He’s the guy who’s ultimately going to make the final call on tough decisions. Obama used this style in his first term and will have to use it again in his second. I would encourage him to use more of it with the Democratic leaders in Congress as he promotes his second term agenda. At the same time, as the great Richard Neustadt wrote in Presidential Power, the greatest power of the presidency is the power to persuade. To make his commands stick when the balance of power is in play, the President will also have to rely on some of the styles like visionary, democratic and affiliative leadership.

2. Pacesetting: This final style is about setting deadlines and holding the team accountable for meeting them. A leader can use this to his or her advantage. For instance, it will be interesting to see how Obama leverages the deadline associated with the upcoming fiscal cliff.  If pacesetting is the only style a leader relies on, people either burn out or quit paying attention.

The research shows that effective leaders are adept at mixing and matching at least three of the six styles to accomplish their goals. Effectively mixing four is better than three, five is better than four and six is better than five.  What I love about this model is it’s pretty easy to identify specific, tangible behaviors for each style. If leaders are clear about the mix of styles they need and why they need it, they are usually able to groove some behaviors that support those styles.

Given the challenges he faces and who he has to work with, I would think the most important styles for Obama to draw on would be visionary, affiliative, democratic and commanding.  If he was my client and we agreed that was the mix, my job would be to help him identify behaviors that align with those styles that are relatively easy to do on a repeatable basis and likely to make a difference.

OK, if you’ve made it this far in this post, you are a true leadership coaching wonk. Thanks for reading!

What’s your take on all of this? If you were coaching the President of the United States, how would you go about it?