Obama’s 100 Day Report Card: Next Level Style

Posted 04.29.2009

Obama-pic1 Everyone’s talking about President Obama’s first 100 days and how he’s doing so far.  Since Obama is the ultimate case of a leader moving up to the next level, I thought I’d add my assessment by offering a report card on his performance as measured against the Next Level model of executive presence.  As outlined in my book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, and summarized in the table beloReportcardw, executive leadership presence can be broken down into nine behavioral distinctions that leaders need to either pick up or let go of.   And those nine distinctions match up with three big categories of executive leadership behaviors: personal presence, team presence and organizational presence.


So, how is the President doing after his first 100 days of leading at the next level?  Read on for a point by point breakdown and an overall GPA.

Confidence vs. Doubt:  Showing up with the right amount of confidence is the foundation of effective leadership.  Especially in tough times, the confident presence of a leader begets confidence in those that he or she leads.  With his steady demeanor, optimistic outlook and command of the facts, Obama embodies confidence.  The newest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reflects that sentiment.  The percentage of Americans who think the country is on the right track is up 17% since January and 31% since last October. Grade: A

Regular Renewal vs. Running Flat Out:  When the pressure is high, leaders need perspective.  They get that perspective by regularly taking some time to step back.  With his travel itinerary, meeting schedule and the range of issues on his plate, Obama has run the risk of edging toward flat out.  That said, he has taken some weekends off, focused on his family and took some time for Sunday afternoon golf while members of his team were handling a swine flu press conference.  All in all, it seems like Obama is keeping a pace that works for him.  Grade: B+

Custom Fit Communications vs. One Size Fits All:  Effective leadership communications is outcome oriented and audience specific. Obama has so many outcomes he’s working on that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all of them.  He is clearly an articulate and intelligent communicator but I would argue that he doesn’t do everything he could to shape his message to the audience.  His tone of voice usually stays within a fairly narrow range.  When he said he was angry about bonuses for executives in bailed out firms he didn’t really sound angry.  He could do better here.  Grade: B-

Team Reliance vs. Self Reliance:  There are two major factors on this distinction.  The first is to get a great team in place.  The second is to get your ego out of the way and allow the team to do their job.  While Obama has had his stumbles (e.g. HHS and Commerce secretary misfires and a slow start from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner), most observers agree he has assembled a first rate team of subordinates.  Whether you agree with his positions or not, it’s hard to deny that Obama has staked out clear direction on a fairly breathtaking array of issues in just 100 days.  A top of mind and incomplete short list includes economic stimulus, banks, autos, Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, energy, carbon emissions, stem cells, interrogation policy and mountain top removal mining.  You can’t lay that kind of groundwork in 3 and ½ months without relying on a strong team.  Grade: B+

Defining What to Do vs. Telling How:  Senior leaders need to be the keepers of the what, not the masters of the how.   In addition to assembling a strong team, Obama has done a solid job of establishing an agenda.  He’s recognized that he’ll likely never have more momentum than he has now and is taking full advantage of it to put his stakes in the ground.  At the same time, the President exhibits a clear sense of doing the things that only he can do given the role that he’s in.  He’s created the bandwidth to do that by allowing his team to determine how to follow through on what he has defined as his agenda.  Grade: A-

Accountability vs. Responsibility:  This distinction is about having the systems, metrics and processes in place that allow you to be accountable for many results while allowing others to be responsible for the specific implementation.  Obama has promised transparency and has taken some interesting first steps in using the internet as a vehicle to promote government accountability.  I think this is an area where there is a lot more to do however.  As an example, there hasn’t really been a clear explanation yet as to how the country will avoid crippling budget deficits in the years to come.  Grade:  C+

Left and Right vs. Up and Down:  To deal with competing agendas and establish support for a common direction, leaders need to work their relationships on the left and the right and not just those up and down the chain of command.  Along with this comes a democratic (small d) style of leadership that solicits the input of those who may not agree with you.  By all accounts, Obama is taking this approach with both members of Congress as well as representatives from different stakeholder groups.  Have we reached a bi-partisan nirvana?  No, but he does seem committed to dialogue.  Grade: B+

Outside-In vs. Inside-Out:   As his recent trips abroad have shown, Obama (with a great big assist from the First Lady) is a rock star around the world.  That can’t help but be a good thing for the United States.  The President has demonstrated the ability to listen to and process the opinions of other leaders.  I think the thing to watch on this distinction is for Obama to be more intentional about explaining to his domestic audience what he’s trying to accomplish on his international trips.  The European and Latin American trips were played in some venues as “apology tours.”  They weren’t really but that theme needs to be better managed by the White House.   Grade: B

Big Footprint vs. Small Footprint:  It’s been awhile (since Reagan?) that we’ve had a President who understands and leverages the impact of his image and footprint as well as Obama does.  As a completely off-the-wall example, one of the analysts on ESPN’s coverage of the NFL draft last weekend referred to several polished rookie prospects as “presidential” in their bearing.  Do you think you would have heard that used as a complimentary adjective a year ago?  I don’t remember it that way.  Overall, Obama has done a masterful job of establishing leadership presence.  Heck,  in the  WSJ/NBC News poll mentioned earlier 30% of the respondents said that while they don’t like Obama’s policies, they like him personally.  Doing great here – he just needs to watch the grip and grin photo ops with guys like Hugo Chavez.  Grade: A-

So, what’s Obama’s overall Next Level GPA?  According to the online grade calculator  I used, he comes in at a 3.30 GPA which just clears the threshold for a B+ overall.  So, I guess it’s safe to put those “My President is an Honor Roll Student” bumper stickers on your cars.  Of course, your grading scale may vary from mine.  What’s your take on Obama’s first 100 days?