I admire President Obama. I support him. He is smart, has a world view and understanding that makes him well suited to the modern world. Unfortunately, in the past few weeks we have not experienced his finest hour. There are times when intelligence, analytic ability, is far less important than urgency and empathy. It is the difference between leadership in combat and leadership in a court room or academic setting.
Some readers may be familiar with my situational leadership model described in Barbarians to Bureaucrats, following Toynbee’s lessons of the rise and fall of civilizations, leaders and cultures go from the imaginative and creative “Prophet” to the conquering “Barbarian” and into the more mature periods in which systems, structure become more important than personalities.
You may remember that great scene in the movie Patton in which George C. Scott, playing Patton, visits the beds of his wounded men, kneels down and prays with them. He then literally leaves his jeep and marches gleefully through the mud with his troops as they race to relieve the surrounded 101st Airborne Division. Of course, Patton is playing Alexander the Great who did the same. Patton believes he is the reincarnated spirit of Alexander. He is the Barbarian, the conquering hero who demonstrates his love for his soldiers and receives their love in return. And, this love, what we call “loyalty” in organizations, is not the result of deep analysis, intelligence or good policies. It is the result of emotions. It is the result of the leader demonstrating the same emotional sensibility of his soldiers, their urgency for the battle, and pure empathy for the fear and pain they are asked to bear.
Having consulted with Shell, Exxon, Texaco and Amoco in years past, and having coached senior teams at those companies, I have some appreciation for the process of deep water drilling. It is a fact that no one, in either government or industry, knows a sure solution to the tragic flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
I am somewhat amazed at news commentators who want Obama to take charge of the efforts to cap the well and stop the flow as if he had some unused magical powers. The U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, or anyone else in government has no answer to this. There is no power that can be commanded into action by the President to stop the flow. In a real sense, the president is helpless and must rely on the best efforts of BP and the other companies involved. Perhaps he could command more forces to the clean up effort.
But, that is not his problem or his failure. His failure is to perform the great theater of leadership in which the leader does as Alexander did, as Patton did, when they visited the tents of the wounded men, kneeled and prayed with their followers, and demonstrated the emotion of love and empathy for those who are in pain. There are little limits to the power of empathy, the power of letting those in pain know that you are with them, you are feeling what they feel, and that you will be by their side in their suffering. This is what George Bush failed to do in the aftermath of Katrina and I am afraid it is what Obama is failing to do or understand in the present case.
John Adams, speaking of the American Revolution, said that “A whole government of our own choice, managed by those persons whom we love, revere and can confide in, has charms in it for which men will fight.” He did not speak of intellect or analysis. He did not speak of factually correct decisions. He said that men will fight for leaders in whom they can confide, whom we love. And, we love those who demonstrate empathy and understanding for our own situation; who demonstrate the urgency that we feel; the fear that we feel. The tragedy of the BP Gulf spill may be more in the loss of affection for this president, a loss at his own hands, than for the coastline that in time will recover.