Obama’s Carrots and Sticks

Posted 02.09.2009

The back and forth over the economic stimulus bill is providing an interesting case study of the need for leaders to mix and match different leadership approaches.  One thing that President Obama showed over the course of his campaign is that he plays a long term game and views the natural peaks and valleys as part of the journey.  Still, it’s been surprising to see how quickly he lost the initiative on the stimulus bill which pretty much everyone agrees is the most important thing he has to get done in the short term.

Obamacarrots I was looking at this over the weekend through the lens of Daniel Goleman’s model of resonant and  dissonant leadership styles.  If you’re not familiar with the model, Goleman makes the point that there are two broad categories of leadership styles.  The resonant styles establish connection between the leader and the group.   Dissonant styles, if overused, create disconnection between the leader and the group.  One way to think about it is the resonant styles represent the carrots while the dissonant styles represent the sticks.  I’d argue that in the past couple of weeks, President Obama went long on carrots and short on sticks. 

Here are the six styles that Goleman has identified that fall into the two broad categories:

        1.    Visionary
        2.    Democratic
        3.    Coaching
        4.    Affiliative

        5.    Commanding
        6.    Pacesetting

The research of Goleman and his colleagues show that effective leaders mix and match at least three of the six styles at any given time.  The key, of course, is choosing the right styles and deploying them in the appropriate amounts – the carrots and the sticks so to speak.

Here’s my take on how Obama got behind the curve on the stimulus bill.  Simply put,  he over relied on the affiliative style, over used the democratic style and  under used the visionary and commanding styles.   Let me break it down a bit.  First, as the name suggests, the affiliative style is all about establishing affiliation with people.   By going to Capitol Hill for meetings with both parties, throwing cocktail parties at the White House and hosting a Super Bowl party for members of Congress,  Obama demonstrated that he is a world champ at this style.  People really seem to like the guy.  Just being liked, of course, will not get the job done.

In putting the package together, the President turned the initiative over to the House Democratic leadership.  In doing this, he was showing some element of the democratic (note that it’s spelled with a small “d”) style which is about inviting input from the group as a decision is made.  Good strategy, but it’s important to be intentional about who’s providing the input, what the parameters are for decision making and to be clear about what’s in and out of scope.   Based on what I’ve read and seen, I’d argue that the President failed to do that so what he got from the House bill was a lot of stuff that was easy for the GOP to define as the same old, same old list of pork barrel projects.  Not a good thing when you’re the president who was elected to bring a new way of doing business to Washington.

To his credit, President Obama recognized pretty quickly that he had gotten behind the curve and has lately been mixing in the commanding and visionary styles that he initially underused in an effort to get things back on track.  Last week, he began stating his case for the stimulus more forcefully by pushing back on those who complain that the bill is just a spending bill.  Obama pretty much called them out by noting that spending is the point of a stimulus bill.  As the bill moves to negotiations between the Senate and the House this week, it will be interesting to see how Obama and his team insert themselves to guide the outcome to something they think will work.

Finally, starting today in Elkhart, Indiana and tonight in a prime time news conference, Obama will deploy his vaunted rhetorical abilities to deploy the visionary style of leadership as he begins to actively sell the stimulus package to the American public.  To be successful in this regard, he’ll need to paint a picture of what the bill will do for the economy, why it matters to the average American and issue a call to action (e.g. e-mail your member of Congress and tell them to support the bill).

What’s your take on Obama’s leadership thus far?  Would you call it the same way I have or do you have a different analysis?