Relearn: What Obama’s Week Teaches Leaders (and Communicators)

For any leader, communication must be a core competency.

No longer can any leader hide in a board room behind closed doors. The 24/7 media world makes anyone in a top role the star of a carefully-watched reality show.

When that leader is the President of the United States, the importance of this competency could retitle the position communicator in chief. And, for the man in the role today, some weeks are better than others.

This has not been a positive communication week for Barack Obama.

He managed, in a few days, to anger those with strong religious beliefs over elements of his health care initiative and disappoint his supporters by changing his mind about financial support from Super PACs.

Despite the sensitivity of both issues, the President chose, in each case, to delegate the communication of his positions to others. Rather than take the time to explain himself, by himself, directly to his stakeholders, he delegated the delicate messaging to those who message for a living. The results were, no surprise, mixed at best, partly because of the content, partly because of the approach.

This leader can act as though he manages the time he communicates each month as if monitoring his cell phone usage. He seems to worry about using too many minutes. Maybe his staffers angst about over exposure, maybe he considers other parts of his job more critical. No matter the reason, Obama sets himself up to disappoint when he delegates this essential part of his job. We elected him, we want to hear from him, we do not need to hear the surrogates.

What can we learn from this week in the President’s communication classroom?

When a leader takes the time to initially explain a position, he or she must take as much time to explain a change. Obama had a lot to say when the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizen United case validated the funding of Super PACs. His words of caution and concern were heartfelt and alarming. But months later, after observing the damage such out-of-control forces can create, the President and his staffers realized they must fight fire with fire. So the President, for practical and political reasons, changed his mind. That happens. But he failed to explain the reasons for his change with equal intensity to his initial expressions of concerns, leaving the messaging vague and the intentions subject to interpretation. No leader should make it this easy to question and criticize. Obama owed his stakeholders a personal, thorough review of the conditions that forced the about face. The fact that he makes a decision is not the same as communicating the decision.

When a leader addresses an emotional topic, he or she must take the time to give stakeholders a chance to absorb. Even when a leader’s schedule is full, the world is turbulent and the pressures are many, he or she cannot postpone communication for a better day. And when the topics are sensitive, the sequence must follow what stakeholders need, not what a leader can manage. In our nation today, with topics as sensitive as contraception and religion, a leader must listen for the concerns people express. This week, as Obama mandated certain aspects of his health care program, he owed the people who support and attack him the chance to hear what he is thinking. But he chose to delegate. In any situation, and any organization, the leader must respect what stakeholders consider sensitive by communicating to the needs and rhythm they set. This week, Obama and his staffers overlooked that a leader cannot shorten the time it takes for people to absorb an issue. And that listening to what constituents think is not the same as monitoring the polls.

This President – as well as those who seek his job – help us learn with every word and action. This week, as the President seemed to distance himself from the communicator he must be, he reminded us that if a leader refuses to engage in what stakeholders need, it may be difficult for stakeholders to engage in what the leader wants.

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