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.
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.
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.