Impression Management of President Obama

In Leadership in Organizations, Professor Gary Yukl defined impression management as “the process of influencing how others perceive you” (Yukl, 2010, p. 136). Dr. Yukl states that often people use excuses and apologies to avoid being blamed for their mistakes or poor performances.

Yukl (2010, citing Pfeffer) states that many leaders try to create the impression that they are “important, competent, and in control” (p. 138). Successes are often broadcast, while failures and errors are kept quiet and not publicized.

Salancik and Meindl (cited in Yukl, 2010) studied annual reports for a group of companies over an 18 year period. They found that top executives often gave themselves credit for positive results but would blame negative outcomes on “aspects of the environment” (Yukl, 2010, p. 138).

The President is using impression management by trying to deflect criticisms that he does not have his finger on the pulse of the American people’s concern about the economy. Case in point: Health Care vs. Economy. Polling of public opinions indicate that his approval has taken a dramatic downhill turn. I believe that this is, in large part, because he failed to listen to ordinary Americans who are much more concerned about job security than health care reform. However, rather than admitting that his priorities were off (pursuit of health care), he’s attempting to explain that what he failed to do was explain to the American people about his plans to revive the economy (and the media’s over-emphasis on health care).

Yukl (citing Pfeffer) says that some leaders “seek to distort or cover up evidence that their strategy is not succeeding” (p. 138). This is one of the tactics used by leaders to “avoid the appearance of failure” (p.138).

In a Harvard Business Review blog posting, Norm Smallwood (one of the authors of the Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By), gave Obama a C+ as a leader based on a review of the President’s first year in office. Smallwood outlined 5 rules which a leader is graded on:

Rule 1: Be a Strategist and Shape the Future. Grade D
Rule 2: Be an Executor and Make Things Happen. Grade C
Rule 3: Be a Talent Manager: Engage Today’s Talent. Grade B
Rule 4: Be a Human Capital Developer: Build the Next Generation. Grade: Incomplete
Rule 5: Be Personally Proficient: Invest in Yourself. Grade A

Smallwood’s overall grade for Obama’s freshman year: C+

If I were grading President Obama’s performance as a leader using Smallwood’s rules, I would give Obama a D- instead of a C+. Here’s how I would grade him and why I believe he earns a D-.

Rule 1: Be a Strategist and Shape the Future. Grade D+
Obama is “trying to ride multiple horses at the same time and the result is a lack of focus and direction” (Smallwood, 2010). When he became President, Obama inherited problems from his predecessor, but instead of focusing on a few areas, he added even more onto his already full plate.

Rule 2: Be an Executor and Make Things Happen. Grade F
“[Obama] has unleashed a torrent of opposition around spending ourselves into the ground as a result of initiating one of the largest health care reform bills in our history, even before the dust settled on any of the nation’s economic issues” (Smallwood, 2010).

When he started last January the U.S. was in the midst of an economic recession. His first priority should have been on creating and sustaining more jobs and rebuilding consumer and business confidence. Obama’s inability to make things happen is the result of a lack of focus due to too many initiatives going on at the same time. He’s on “initiative overload right now” (Smallwood, 2010).

Rule 3: Be a Talent Manager: Engage Today’s Talent. Grade C-
Although Smallwood (2010) believes that Obama was good at engaging talent in selecting his cabinet and getting their support, I’m not sure that I see it that way. Obama invited Hilary Clinton (who was a strong opponent in the Democratic Primary) to work alongside him. While things may seem calm on the surface, I’m not certain that strong convictions and feelings (held by Clinton) can be set aside that quickly. Another point I want to make is that even when, on paper, your team seems like the “Dream Team,” in reality if there’s lack of trust and bitter infighting, no amount of skills and intelligence can overcome anger, distrust, and resentment. Finally, Obama’s tendency to surround himself with academics who are out of touch with middle America translates into selecting Ivy League-educated academics who know little to nothing about mainstream America.

Rule 4: Be a Human Capital Developer: Build the Next Generation. Grade: Incomplete
I would agree with Smallwood’s assessment. It’s still too early in his presidency to tell what if anything, Obama is doing to build the next generation.

Rule 5: Be Personally Proficient: Invest in Yourself. Grade A
Although Obama gets an “A” a word of caution must be noted. A President who seems to be out of touch with the average American, and one who seems to appear often on magazine covers and in TV interviews instead of behind the scenes working, might be interpreted as a President who cares more about self-image (impression management) than in helping to lead a nation out of a recession.

For these reasons, my grade for Obama’s first year is: D-

References

Smallwoood, N. (2010). Obama as leader: A freshman year report card. Harvard Business Review Blog. Retrieved January 27, 2010 from http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/01/obama_as_leader_a_freshman_yea.html

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall.

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