The POTUS Guide to Leadership Decision-Making

No question about it, no rx President of the USA ranks up there as possibly the toughest leadership job on Earth, now more than at any time since WW2.

But 21st-century presidents face an especially daunting task.

Irrespective of the incumbent’s political affiliations, the hurdles are always imposing – a nation of rabid, partisan critics, a society of 300 million paymasters split between the supportive, the indifferent and the downright hostile, a 24 hour news cycle taken to ridiculous extremes, a system choked to standstill with corporate money and special interest groups, life and death decisions on the table every day, an entire planet ready to catch cold if the country sneezes and a legislative system seemingly designed to stonewall.

So with all these impediments, how can the POTUS actually find a path to make the tough decisions? How can he lead? If we can understand these questions a little, then perhaps we mere mortals can learn some leadership lessons from the Biggest Project Leader Of All.

To kick off, I want to set a challenge – to put aside our personal political persuasions for a while (I truly, honestly do not care who you vote for…really!), focus on The Office itself and ask ourselves whether President Obama’s personal decision-making style can help us on our own leadership journeys.

Let’s look at some of 44’s habits and see how they might work for us.

Get Started On Tomorrow, Today

In a funny way, the president’s day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things – Michael Lewis

Obama doesn’t start his day’s work when he wakes up in the morning – he plans ahead and lays out the framework the night before. He reviews notes, plans his big issues and understands what his priorities will be so that when he wakes next morning, he has a clear view of what to expect.

We can certainly tap into this. An easy thing to do is block some time in your daily calendar to sit back and review your plans for the next day or week. Like so much of self-reflection, the method doesn’t matter as much as the simple act of doing.

Just 10-15 minutes, nothing too complicated. This can easily form part of your daily routine – your evening journey home from work, walking the dog, sitting out on the back step with a cup of tea, a few minutes at the kitchen table when the kids are in bed. Time to sit alone and think about what to expect and how you might approach the next day.

Don’t Make Decisions Complex

The President makes daily decisions that we cannot begin to imagine – complex, far reaching, life and death decisions that most of the human race would have trouble wrapping our heads around. But he is able to tap into an ever-growing army of advisers to help manage the overwhelming flow of information, allowing him to focus in on the core issues, to strip away as much complexity as possible and concentrate on the things that really matter.

I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing…because I have too many other decisions to make – Barack Obama

You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia – Barack Obama

Can we do this? Can we strip away complexity and make our decisions simpler and more focussed? Sure we can. We may not have personal advisers and aides, but we do have the next best thing – our project teams are full of people who are immersed in the issues and willing to commit themselves to the cause, if we give them the chance.

  • Delegate the less-than-critical decisions to your work stream owners. Give them the headspace and ownership for their streams, all the while working within your guidelines.
  • Don’t micromanage your teams – set the boundaries, then be prepared to step back and let your team manage their own decisions.
  • Bring your stream leads into the important discussions – seek their involvement, engage with them, listen to what they have to say

Embrace A Broader Narrative

Obama does this to a tee.

Look at all his Great Speeches and you will see a common thread; the way he binds his journey to a much broader narrative.

His 2013 graduation speech to Morehouse College was a wonderful case in point – look carefully at the way he couches his vision and his path within a grand, all-embracing historical context. All-embracing.

What a powerful way to engage his audience, to help them understand their personal roles in the journey and the way that their contributions tie together and help carry the narrative forward. He immerses the audience in the journey with him, giving them an emotional stake and personalizing their involvement by letting them see a role for themselves.

Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy – the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had – because there but for the grace of God, go I – I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me – Barack Obama

This is a really powerful technique that we can all use.

There is no doubt that it can be personally confronting to open up and expose our vulnerabilities in this way but it can also help break through barriers and let people see that we are not operating in isolation, but rather as part of a much larger, broader “tribe”.

Do it right and our teams will feel a sense of emotional ownership, a connection to that wider tribe and a deeper appreciation for why we make our key decisions and take them in a certain direction.

Show your team the bigger picture. Help them see the wider environment to which they are inextricably linked. Let them understand the background to the project or program. Talk through the big ticket strategic drivers, objectives and opportunities. Explain the key constraints and risks.

Invoke the sense of tribe. Let people see why their role is important, where it fits into the picture and why it matters.
Give your team that sense of self-fulfillment, that higher level motivator that Maslow argued is so important for engagement.

Trust your team to embrace the decision, once they understand and can personalize the narrative.

Set the boundaries, explain the context and see your team grow into the opportunity.

Reflection time

President Obama sets aside three blocks of time each day that are unquestionably his: his morning workout, his dinner with his daughters and the night time after his family falls asleep. While each block of time serves a different role, all are grounded in a common idea – the need to claim time each day as your own, to provide time and space for self-reflection.

This is something that we can all do in our own ways – exercising, walking to work, meditating, blocking quiet time in your calendar – it’s not the method of self reflection that matters as much as the simple act of doing.

Do what you need to do, to get that sense of perspective.

Sit Back and Invite Ideas

When it is time to make a really complex decision, Obama doesn’t start discussions by stating his position. Rather, he invites all the participants to contribute – he seeks their input and looks for other opinions, ideas and arguments, either to challenge his own thinking, or to reinforce his position.

By doing this at the outset, he elicits a much more nuanced, authentic discussion from others than if he simply asked them to respond to his own position.

It’s the Heisenberg principle…me asking the question changes the answer – Barack Obama

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – what a great analogy!

We can use this approach in our own work; we can mix our meetings up, invite different opinions, encourage dissent and see what people bring to the table.

We can avoid stating our case and then corralling people into only talking about that…instead, let’s spell out the target end-state and invite our team to fill in the gaps. Use the uncertainty as a catalyst for bringing our teams together and cultivating fresh ideas and new thinking.

Act With Certainty in an Uncertain Environment

It is an timeless truism that the higher up the tree you travel, the tougher the decisions become; senior leaders all too often get lumped with the decisions no one else wants to have to deal with.

Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable, otherwise somebody else would have solved it – Barack Obama

Obama deals in uncertainty constantly, knowing that any decision he makes is likely to have a significant chance of failure, with potentially catastrophic consequences. He asserts the authority of The Office by taking ownership of those most difficult decisions that are shaped by uncertainty, providing a totem around which others in his orbit can gather.

As the POTUS, he leads by stepping up and owning his decisions. This in turn, provides that all important sense of control and stability, that confidence that he will find a way through, that is so critical to his team in the most difficult times.

He then focuses on presenting himself (and The Office) as being sure of his decision, so that the people surrounding him do not feed off any personal uncertainty that he may feel.

If he feels personally uneasy, he chooses not to let it show; he makes sure that in his leadership capacity, he deals with the situation in a calm, ordered manner so that his team take on the same sense of poise and certainty.

You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralysed with the fact that it might not work out – Barack Obama

As Project Leaders, we also deal in uncertainty.  We need to make our team feel confident, even when we are uncertain.  We also need to project certainty and confidence, to give our team something to hang on to.

In The End…

In the end, very few people ever get to be the US President and that means something very special – very few people get to understand just how difficult POTUS leadership decision-making is.

But we can certainly look to The Office and learn some important lessons, we can find ways to improve our own leadership and be stronger, surer and more forthright.

We can certainly look to the Biggest Project Leader Of All and find common ground.

What do you think?  Can you see parallels between Obama’s approach and your own?  Can you see techniques that would help you on your journey?

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