Koehn on Obama, Lincoln and Leadership

January 25, 2010

As usual, Nancy Koehn of HBS has some provocative insights into Obama’s leadership challenges, wrapped up in a rich historical package.   In a recent contribution to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, Koehn compares Obama’s challenges to the political, military and economic disasters threatening to overwhelm Lincoln at the end of his first year in office:

…the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party…concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president “lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command”); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war.  As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General,”The bottom is out of the tub…What shall I do?”

Koehn finds inspiration for the Obama Administration in Lincoln’s ultimate response:

What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862–with critically important consequences for the fate of the country–was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union–a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.

She closes by connecting the dots.  It’s good advice for anyone looking for their leadership mojo in a context of doubt and despair:

Barack Obama’s most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead — that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.


Unsolicited Advice for Obama’s Gay Speech

October 6, 2009
The President is delivering the keynote address for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Washington dinner. The context includes frustration in the gay community for his mixed signals on reforming policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He and his team have also surprised observers by their lack of demonstrated grace on the issue of gay rights.  My suggestions for getting it right Saturday night:
  1. Assume a high sensitivity to trivializing the issues. Keep it sober, earnest, honest, direct.
  2. We don’t believe you when you say you’re outsourcing this one to the Bible.
  3. Gays in the military is not a hypothetical issue. Gay soldiers are now serving and dying for America. You are their Commander-in-Chief.
  4. This is about identity, not lifestyle or sex. Convince yourself of that before you take the podium.
  5. Serious scholars think your political hero was probably a homosexual.
  6. There are dangers to over-learning the lessons of the Clinton administration (see over-correction on healthcare strategy). The don’t-waste-your-political-capital advice is obsolete.
  7. Not to alarm you, but the crazy thing about us is that we’re everywhere and nowhere. We’re safely in that “other” camp, and then suddenly we’re your colleagues and your spouses and your children. Just ask Dick.
  8. Tell it to us straight, if you will. We’re very good at separating posture from truth. It’s one of the closet’s many gifts.
  9. Courage and caution can’t coexist for long.
  10. Lose the Blackberry holster. A fashion don’t.
  11. Bring Michelle.
  12. Man up.