Saturday, November 15th, 2008 | Author:

Warning: This entry is a very LONG essay on management. I know not everyone is interested.

Its been a long 2 year campaign to finally elect Barack Obama but he succeeded and many attribute this to how he managed his campaign. Despite what everyone sees as a lack of experience, I think he showed management skills better than Hillary Clinton did. Hopefully this skills should translate into being a great President (I hope). Newsweek wrote a long story about the details of every campaign and from it I took out parts where Obama showed where his management skills trounced Hillary’s.

During the campaign Obama showed that he could:

  • Set Clear Management Objectives
  • Be a Conciliatory Manager of a Team of Rivals
  • Relentlessly Self Improve
  • Do Not Play the Blame Game

Set Clear Management Objectives

It is crucial for a manager to set clear objectives for the team. This is something that Peter Drucker emphasizes in his The Practice of Management:

“Any business enterprise must build a true team and weld indivual efforts into a common effort. Each member of the enterprise contributes something different, but they must all contribute toward a common goal. Their efforst must all pull in the same direction, and their contributions must fit together to produce a whole -without gaps, without friction, without unnecessary duplication of effort.”

Once you are in a leadership position it is very easy to get sucked into the day to day activities and forget the objectives. If your team does not understand the objectives, then it is likely that they will be lost each going in their own directions. It is important to have a 10,000 foot view of the entire situation so you can see that everyone is heading towards the same goal.

However, you have to be careful to strike the right balance. You must make your objectives clear without being in complete control, insisting that every decision be handled by you. Drucker talks about this totalitarian style of management was practiced by Henry Ford at the Ford Company and failed.

Obama Knows Himself & Sets His Objectives Early

Obama very early on in the campaign set his objectives for his entire team to know. He wanted a ground up campaign where the message is to have change but expressed in a non-threatening way so that it could be accepted by the public.

Obama had laid out his vision for the campaign on the day after the midterm elections in 2006. The Democrats had routed the Republicans in Congress, and Obama sensed that the moment had arrived for an unconventional campaign that would take advantage of voter disenchantment—not just with the Republicans but with politics as usual. He had met in a small, dimly lit conference room in the office of Axelrod’s consulting firm in Chicago with his inner circle…

Obama spoke first….Obama knew he had a knack for finding non-threatening ways to make people accept change—to begin with, his own skin color. As Jarrett recalled, Obama insisted that he wanted to run a grass-roots campaign because he had seen it work as a community organizer, and he wanted to try to take the model and go national.

This clear objective was followed throughout the entire campaign. You never saw an “angry black man” who would attack McCain in the debates like many people wanted him to. He was very non-threatening, almost completely boring. He was calm throughout the financial crisis and had a very level headed response to diffuse Jeremiah Wright (someone who is threatening). Obama found most of his contributors by working the streets and finding people on the Internet.

Hillary is Lost

Hillary Clinton on the other hand is a great Senator but not a good manager. She was more effective as a Senator than Obama but  “was unable to control her own staffers, who from the very first skirmish with the Obama forces showed questionable judgment and mutual distrust.” I think the skills that make a good senator (arguing and negotiation) do not translate into management skills. A good President should have all of these skills.

Hillary did not have a clear objective that the entire team could follow. Instead she was indecisive and her own team fought each other for power. She couldn’t define her objectives because she couldn’t decide what her message to the voters was. “Hillary’s lame first campaign slogan, designed by default and by committee, was ‘I’m in It to Win.’ (‘No s–––,’ Ickes muttered to a NEWSWEEK reporter.)” She just remained stuck between the strategy of attacking Obama or softening her own image with no decision and plan to go forward. Instead all ads using either strategy were shelved while her team bickered. Her staffers probably felt their efforts were wasted, doing their own thing and not having any effect.

Know Thyself

Obama seemed to know right from the beginning what he is and what he wanted to do whereas Hillary didn’t know who she was or what she wanted. I think this may be attributed to Obama’s ability to be self-reflective and always self-aware. Throughout the Newsweek article, Obama is described as someone who needs time alone with his thoughts and from this develop insights and decisions. I think that his introspective nature is what allowed Obama to know exactly WHY he wanted to be President and with his experience as a community organizer quickly came up with his grass roots strategy for his campaign.

Hillary has been at it for so many years that I think she lost herself. She’s a stubborn fighter, Bill Clinton’s Wife, Former First Lady, Senator from New York, a woman who can’t cry, a white collar schlub like you, a cackling witch, a feminist, a nagging wife, a human being who should cry, etc. I think her years in the political machine has made her aware of the public image of herself but throughout the years forgotten who she really is and why she wants to be President. She let polls decide who she ought to be. This led to her unable to define an objective, make a clear decision and control her staffers. Instead she just got caught along the day to day political rallies and battles with the media while her staffers did their own things.

Be a Conciliatory Manager of a Team of Rivals

There are different styles of management ranging from an authoritarian control of your team to a laissez-faire style where your team is in as much control as you. I believe a good manager needs to pick the appropriate style depending on his/her situation. Ideally, if you have a team of smart, capable members then it is good to be a conciliatory/democratic leader. Each member should also have different opinions so that the leader can hear a broad spectrum of opinions to deliberate on. This is the main idea behind Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach.

“In Team of Rivals,  historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, makes the case that by bringing political opponents into his cabinet, Lincoln could hear dissenting voices, turn his enemies into allies, and lead the country through its greatest crisis.”

This sounds like a great idea but appears to be requires a lot of skill to manage.
Goodwin believes Lincoln was able manage this Team of Rivals because of his:

  • steadfastness of purpose, which inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries.
  • superb sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of public opinion as he moved to bring along a divided people to the support of “a new birth of freedom.”
  • ability to rise above personal slights, his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other.
    — From The New York Times

During the campaign Obama shows that he uses a conciliatory approach:

Obama was diligent, bringing up small morsels of information hidden in the fat briefing books, and he acted like a law professor who calls on reluctant pupils (“I haven’t heard from you,” he’d say to anyone around the table who had been silent too long). A lot of politicians pretend to be inclusive; Obama actually was. But “at the end, you didn’t know where he stood. When you got down to the final judgment, I had a sense, but I didn’t have any kind of certainty.” Holder thought Obama was being shrewd to not signal his intentions too clearly—since “people want to say what the boss wants to hear, and if they don’t know, you’ll get more honest advice.”

I think it is very shrewd that Obama used his elusiveness to his advantage, allowing more honest opinions instead of fostering yes-men. However, I’m not sure if any of his staffers were “rivals.” Everyone seemed to get along well because they were known as th No-Drama Obama team. It might be, that Obama possesses the same skills as Lincoln and that any rivalry was handled by Obama and not reported by the media as anything of interest.

Obama also seems to have a sense of when a conciliatory approach won’t work. He lectured his staff when a low level staffer insulted Hillary Clinton forcing a more authoritative approach when it came to dealings with the press:

“I don’t want you guys freelancing and, quote, protecting me from what you’re doing,” he lectured his staff. “I’m saying this loud and clear—no winks, no nods here,” he said, irritated to take the heat for a clumsy dirty trick he had not known about and would never have authorized. “I’m looking at every one of you. If you think you’re close to the line, the answer isn’t to protect me—the answer is to ask me.”

Obama does appear to have the same skills as Lincoln to manage a Team of Rivals. He has shown a steadfastness of purpose (as I described above in his ability to set objectives). He definitely appears to have a real sense of public opinion reflected in his the timing of his decision to run after the Democrats took over in 2006. He has also recently shown an ability to rise above personal slights, having met with John McCain and Hillary Clinton recently.

Obama, having since been elected has promised before that he would create a cabinet team of rivals. The news right now is that he’s considering Hillary Clinton in the Secretary of State position. We’ll have to wait and see if he actually sets up his team of rivals. I belive he has the skills to manage them.

Hillary definitely had a Team of Rivals and appeared to also use a conciliatory approach. But ultimately, she didn’t have all of Lincoln’s skills to manage them and effectively use a Team of Rivals:

A top adviser may have more accurately captured the spirit of the Clinton campaign when remarking to a NEWSWEEK reporter, “It was a terribly unpleasant place to work. You had seven people on a morning call, all of whom had tried to get someone else on the call fired, or knew someone on the call tried to get them fired. It was not a recipe for cohesive team building.”

Hillary didn’t have that sense of purpose (a clear objective) that could inspire her team to get over petty rivalries. She seemed like she couldn’t read the pulse of public opinion, wrongly believing that her tears were a sign of weakness rather than a sign of her humanity as most people believed. I’m not sure if Hillary can rise above personal slights. Certainly rising above her husband’s infidelity shows she can rise above but I also sense that she holds grudges. She didn’t want to shake Obama’s hand and talked about a vast right-wing conspiracy after the Clinton Presidency was over. After Obama was nominated, Bill Clinton never really seemed to fully endorse Obama (seeming still bitter after Hillary’s lost).

Relentless Self Improvement

Another part essential to Peter Drucker’s idea of Management by Objectives is “Self-Control.” Once you’ve set your objectives, you need to measure how well you executed those objectives and utilize self control to reconfigure yourself toward those objectives.

It is very easy to be pushed by schedules and future incomplete projects to forget to stop and analyze what could be improved upon on the current project. Experience is only useful if you learn something from it. If you’re stuck on only focusing on getting it done so you can move to the next, then you won’t ever learn from any of your mistakes and it becomes very easy to forget your objectives.

Obama was a relentless self-improver while on the campaign. He made his mistakes early and learned from them so that by the end of the campaign, he was a well oiled machine:

learning on the stump—at his own pace and in his own way. Obama was a relentless self-improver: “I’m my own worst critic,” he told NEWSWEEK, but he was also a loner who needed to step back away from the others, to look more closely at himself.

Do Not Play THE Blame Game

When problems occur, it does no good to waste energy blaming your team members. Time should not be wasted on trying to blame people. Fix the issue immediately, then figure out how to avoid it from occuring again. Blaming people only fosters bad blood and does not promote team work. However, it should be noted during analysis of the problems that if a team member’s failure is consistent, then its time to consider termination.

Obama, despite sounding passive-aggressive did not play the blame game:

Obama was not one to cast blame, at least not too obviously or too loudly. After his campaign spent $20 million to win Texas and still lost, he ran through a list of mistakes with his staff, not laying any blame on anyone in particular. He stood up to leave, and as he walked out of the conference room of campaign headquarters on Michigan Avenue, he turned around and said, “I’m not yelling at you guys.” He took another few steps and turned around again and said, “Of course, after blowing through $20 million in a couple of weeks, I could yell at you. But …” He paused. “I’m not yelling at you.” He laughed and walked out the door.

Hillary’s staffers seem to love blaming each other:

Before too long, reality set in among Clinton’s staffers, and the finger-pointing began. According to other staffers, Mark Penn, Hillary’s prickly chief strategist, had been all for the assault on Obama, but when he saw it backfiring he told Bill Clinton that he had not been involved, that it was Wolfson’s fault. With Hillary Clinton, he suggested that perhaps Wolfson, who was cast in the press as a hit man out of “The Sopranos,” wasn’t up to the job of chief spokesman in a presidential campaign. For good measure he took a swipe at Grunwald, officially the campaign’s chief ad person, though Penn regarded himself as the campaign’s true image maker. “You have to fix this,” said Hillary. Penn nodded. “We have to make him think that he’s in charge of communications,” Penn said conspiratorially, “the same way we made Mandy think she’s in charge of ads.”

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