The Let-Me-Impress-You Club

Most close followers of American politics, regardless of affiliation, would agree that Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign was a masterful one. The candidate conducted himself with cool smarts and emotional intelligence — often at levels that belied his relative inexperience on the national stage. He assembled around him a leadership team that advised him well and built a superb campaign organization.

However, to date, his Presidency has been less successful. Despite some victories, he repeatedly has been outflanked by his political opponents, and often his message has been garbled and indecisive.

Why the disconnect? How can such a remarkable candidate morph into a President who often seems to have lost the strong, decisive voice and strategic edge that swept him into office?

All the bells & whistles

This piece is not about praising or pummeling President Obama’s record per se. I voted for him in 2008 and likely will vote for him in 2012 (albeit less enthusiastically), but I respect the fact that others may feel differently.

Rather, this article is about how Barack Obama exemplifies a cohort of young (or youngish), extremely able, and advantaged professionals whose compelling personal qualities and talents create opportunities for which they are not quite ready.

Members of this “Let-Me-Impress-You Club” have spent their lives jumping through the right hoops, going to the right schools, and schmoozing the right people. However, many have not been tested under fire. Consequently, their on-the-job learning tends to come on a bigger stage than the typical training ground, and their bad decisions thus come at a higher cost.

Super people

In a recent piece for the New York Times (link here), James Atlas found himself fawning over a cohort of young people who appear to possess extraordinary credentials and abilities:

Let’s call this species Super Person.

Do we have some anomalous cohort here? Achievement freaks on a scale we haven’t seen before? Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts? And if so, what convergence of historical, social and economic forces has been responsible for the emergence of this new type? Why does Super Person appear among us now?

If you’ve ever spent time around a prestigious law school or business school, you’ve seen these folks in abundance. They sport absolutely frightening lists of accomplishments, and often they believe they are meant to fulfill a certain personal destiny. Many, however, are prime candidates for the Let-Me-Impress-You Club.

I submit that once Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School and began building a record of achievement there, he joined this group of very able and privileged individuals.

A missing piece

Regrettably, many of these well-credentialed and connected individuals have spent more time auditioning than performing. Their fast-tracked careers become a continuous series of interviews and tryouts aiming toward the next rung on the ladder.

As I recently observed:

The School of Life is a valuable teacher. That’s why when it comes to leadership positions, in most cases I’ll opt for a talented, energetic, albeit weathered veteran over a shiny ingenue or a hyper-confident rookie.

Going with an untested leader is a crapshoot, plain and simple. Sometimes it works out well, but I’m convinced that — other things being relatively equal — we’ll get better results with more seasoned people at the helm.

Prepped for conformity

In addition, Let-Me-Impress-You Club members typically are conditioned not to challenge the Establishment, especially if doing so poses a risk to their résumés. As I have done previously, let me draw upon an insightful 2009 speech on leadership that writer William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point plebes:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. . . . Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. . . . Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that . . . you have nothing inside you at all.

Back to the President

Okay, Barack Obama is hardly a mediocrity. He is a gifted individual, and we saw that on the campaign trail in 2008.

But at least let’s consider the possibility that many Let-Me-Impress-You clubbers are not prepared to be excellent, difference-making leaders because they are so devoted to, and invested in, a status quo that offers them so much.

For example, isn’t it telling that after the election, the man who touted himself as the voice of change surrounded himself with some of the same establishment, Ivy-encrusted economic advisers who helped to give us the economic meltdown in the first place?

And when he found his idealistic, non-partisan, let’s-work-together message being drowned out by opposition from those determined to make him a one-term President, isn’t it possible that Obama hit a personal wall, not accustomed to such angry resistance and hostility after a career of being regarded as a Chosen One?

Preparing and selecting leaders

This exemplifies a challenge facing many members of the Let-Me-Impress-You Club. They have learned how to wow people in a room with their personalities and accomplishments, but they haven’t quite figured out how to lead when the going gets tough and they are no longer cheered by admirers.

It also reflects a fundamental problem with how we select people for positions of influence and responsibility. Too often we make these choices on the basis of Let-Me-Impress-You credentials and qualities, while downplaying, if not ignoring, other important indicia of who can provide effective service and leadership.

10 responses

  1. Great article! I wonder how this helps bullying. There has to be a coorelation. Maybe an “enabler”? (They cannot lead under fire)

    • Paul, when bullying situations arise, I think many of these folks are enablers (e.g., complicit in some way, but not the actual bully/bullies) or silent bystanders. Standing up to specific instances of bullying as a 3rd party entails too much career risk.

    • By thinking in terms of mobbing — collective aggression — over bullying, the link is clear. When someone in the hierachy of power wants a worker out, the entire chain of command will fall in line. There won’t be dissenters among the leadership because those who are there were selected based on their unconditional allegiance to the power structure; any newbies among them recognize that going after ‘the difficult worker” and cooperating with mobbing them out regardless of fairness or proper procedure is a test of their loyalty and grit.

      Among the workforce, they will also go along with the mobbing because they, too, have been conditioned to identify with the power structure while at the same time, fear it and define their success in terms of their ability to impress those in power. As they see an abuse against a worker commence, they realize 1) this is what happens when you rock the boat; and 2) that person will be gone and an opening created — opportunity beckons to anyone who helps management. Even if the opening is lateral, advancement is rather Darwinian — future promotions into the power structure will select for those who have demonstrated a willingness to shed blood, betray friends and colleagues, and set personal values aside to protect those in power.

      “Bullying” focuses primarily on the intepersonal aspect of aggression, but mobbing incorporates the organizational culture that transforms even the good people in an organization into aggressors when someone is marked for destruction.

      BTW, Obama’s mother was an anthropologist who chose not to go into academia and the scuttlebutt about her experiences suggests she was very sensitive and astute to the aggressive behaviors of academics.

  2. I don’t think the majority of voters vote a candidate based on a lick of substance or experience. They don’t do their homework or research a candidate. They vote on Party line or on looks and charisma. I was thinking of the movie, Social Network, when the guys were voting on women by posting two faces. I’d be willing to bet that a presidential candidate could be predicted using the same method. Add some great rhetoric and they’d be a shoe-in. It’s all about a PhD from Charm School U. We will pay the price of the uneducated voter.

  3. Experience and the school of hard knocks teaches one that in the real world of humanity, smart doesn’t count for much. In fact, smart often works against you, unless you can override intelligence with some more effective characteristic. Ethical is likely to assure your demise in many employment settings.

  4. Pingback: Fooled from the start? First impressions and masters of workplace manipulation « Minding the Workplace

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