Presidential influence

History shows business leaders take cues from the Oval Office in choosing management styles

By Robert Weisman
November 9, 2008
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Out goes the decider, the unilateralist, the Harvard Business School MBA, and the top-down, command-and-control model.

In comes the consensus builder, the delegator, the community organizer (via Harvard Law School), and the motivational style.

President-elect Barack Obama will take the helm as chief executive of the US government on Jan. 20. But already management educators, strategy consultants, and business sages of all stripes are taking his measure, looking for leadership clues and cues.

His policies aside, Obama's management traits and his worldview, encompassing everything from sustainability to public-private partnerships to a broader international focus, are likely to influence how American business is practiced and taught in coming years.

Obama's campaign will long be pored over as a case study in organizational brilliance: a clear strategy, alignment of goals and tactics, smart planning and execution. Its capacity to adapt to fast-changing circumstances and its deployment of the Internet to build a distributed network of supporters and donors were two key elements.

"He liked to say, 'It's not about me, it's about you,' " noted business author Shoshana Zuboff, a retired professor at Harvard Business School. "That put voters at the center of the political universe. Businesses have to find a parallel that puts people at the center of the commercial universe, that forges a real relationship with consumers."

Like the president-elect, business executives and candidates for master of business administration degrees are grappling with the challenges of stewardship at a time of fewer resources and more constraints. But in the age of Obama, they are also eager to think big, embrace change, and experiment with new business models.

"This guy just sold quite a product," said David B. Friend, president and chief executive of Palladium Group, a Boston consulting group specializing in strategy execution. "Obama became the ultimate brand. So if you're in business, it's hard to miss what this guy did."

In the nation's business schools, training grounds for the next generation of CEOs, students have been paying close attention.

"There's been effervescence in the air around here as we've watched this election," said Leigh G. Hafrey, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, who described a hunger for a new leadership style. "What happens in the White House has a huge impact on attitudes and practices."

The approaches of past presidents often have served as templates for occupants of the nation's corner offices. Think of Herbert Hoover's woefully inadequate laissez-faire posture during the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Franklin Roosevelt's determined improvisation during the Great Depression, or Bill Clinton's casual management style during the T-shirts-and-jeans technology boom of the 1990s.

Obama, the candidate, was a study in even temper and quiet tenacity, using his exceptional oratory and debating skills to inspire and persuade tens of millions of American voters. For executives, the message is that communication tools are more important than ever.

The new Democratic president might harken back to a pair of Republicans in matters of style. Ronald Reagan, inheriting a sagging economy and reviving it, set a leadership tone, projected optimism, and delegated many tasks. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, was a master motivator leading troops on D-Day. "He got 400,000 guys to storm a beach in Normandy while they were getting shot at," Friend said.

Beyond style, Obama's priorities are likely to influence those of businesses. Hafrey believes, for example, the new president's quest for alternative energy sources and green environmental practices will be mirrored by companies searching for lower costs and opportunities. "Obama clearly takes an interest in climate change, and my sense is that growing numbers of businesses are doing the same," he said.

Following Obama's lead, a new openness to government working with the private sector, on issues like energy and healthcare, could emerge on both sides, Hafrey suggested. And patterning themselves on Obama's inclusiveness, he said, businesses are more likely to shift from exclusively serving shareowners toward a broader focus on "stakeholders," including customers, workers, and communities.

"When we talk about globalization, we've been talking mostly about the way capital flows around the world," Hafrey said. "But there's also the cultural dimension, and Obama will get businesses thinking more about the relations between the developed countries and developing countries on issues like child labor and working conditions."

The most demanding constituency may be Obama's own supporters, empowered by the Internet and instilled by the candidate with great expectations. In that respect, too, the 44th president could be a role model for 21st-century executives operating in a world of newly assertive customers and bottom-up product development.

"George W. Bush had the famous quote that he was 'the decider,' " Friend noted, referring to the 43d president who Obama will succeed in January. "If you're the decider, you don't need to listen. That's the way things were run at Wall Street institutions like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. But in modern management, there's no future for that model. Leaders have to turn their organization into a decision-making engine where all decisions aren't made at the top."

Ready or not, everything American leaders thought they knew about shepherding organizations is about to be refreshed.

Robert Weisman can be reached at


Told voters, "It's not about me, it's about you."


Self-proclaimed "decider" on many issues.


A micromanager who often arrived late to meetings.


Projected optimism and delegated most tasks.


Improvised constantly and embraced new ideas.

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