Leadership 101 for the President

Allen Hunt
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Posted: Aug 03, 2009 12:00 AM

I had hoped that President Obama would have read my words from last week by now. Clearly, he has not. In the wake of the never-ending tale of Gates-gate woe, our President is in obvious need of a leadership coach. While I am very busy at present, for the sake of my nation, I will offer a helping hand.

Last week, I shared a leadership lesson from my prior life with the simple insight that the President of the United States would benefit from learning it. At the age of 22, in my first job out of college, I received careful training from wise leaders in the firm in a simple phrase: “I don't know.” My coaches taught me to use that phrase whenever I did not know the answer. I learned to use that phrase in order to communicate confidence in what I did know and wisdom to be clear on the things I did not know. Most importantly, those less-traveled words (I don't know) protected our firm's reputation from damage done by careless remarks or half-thought statements.

As the ongoing saga painfully continues, President Obama now needs even more leadership coaching. He first could have avoided the whole mess, and the larger mess that he has created by commenting foolishly, if he simply had uttered the phrase, “I don't know.” He did not. Now he needs to discover that when one fails to use, “I don't know,” he soon needs to apply the next three important words, “I am sorry.”

Mr. President, please just apologize and end this embarrassment now. For all of our sakes. Please. Enough.

Now that we have been subjected to Obama's self-admittedly baseless comments about police officers' “stupid” actions, his pedantic reminders of racial divides in this country, and the earth-shaking results of his new diplomatic device, “The Beer Summit,” Mr. Obama owes us all an apology. His poor leadership has gotten out of hand. Either that, or his hubris is showing.

First, he could have easily navigated this non-event of Professor Gates and Officer Crowley by replying with the accurate statement, “I don't know,” when originally asked by Lynn Sweet about the incident. That is the proper response of good leaders when they in fact do not know the answer. That is also the proper response for the leader of the free world whose primary job is to cast the vision for the United States rather than squandering time and energy adjudicating misunderstandings among individuals in Massachusetts.

Second, President Obama needs to learn and execute a new leadership phrase: “I am sorry.” This is the statement strong leaders use when they have misspoken, led poorly, or involved themselves in matters which should be of no concern for someone at their levels. President Obama simply should have uttered these words of apology once he reflected on his own “stupid” comments about the incident in the first place. An apology for stating opinions without facts, an act of contrition for meddling in a local police matter when he is the American President (ever heard of scale?), and a word of remorse for impugning the character of others, would have ended this embarrassing debacle of poor leadership and judgment.

Instead of apologizing, Mr. Obama offered convoluted comments like, “To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.” That is as close to an apology as he came before launching into self-justification with, “I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station... I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. “ Not only is he continuing to ignore the first lesson by persisting in commenting on hearsay, the President cannot bring himself to admit that he has made a mistake. Not only did he make matters worse, and not only did he comment without knowledge, but he also lessened himself and his own stature as President by engaging in such a minute matter at all. Will someone in the White House staff please stop him from himself?

Mr. Obama clearly does not get that America needs a leader who is focused on the big picture (I will save that leadership lesson for another day). Instead of apologizing for this mess of his own making, he continues to insist that he is the one to lead two people through a simple misunderstanding. Why else would he say, “Whether I were black or white, I think that me [sic] commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio.” Is there any matter too small for Mr. Obama? He has already demonstrated that there is no matter too large for his taste. A simple exercise in scale and discernment would be timely and fruitful right now.

Powerful words, those: I am sorry. A simple apology accomplishes much. Three short words have the power to transform a situation. Words of remorse communicate limits, honesty, even humility. To say, “ I am sorry,” is to communicate one's weakness, one's acceptance of your own shortcomings, and a willingness to be vulnerable before others. These words transform.relationships. They end conflicts. They offer a fresh start not only for presidents who blunder but for employees who stumble, fathers who misspeak, and daughters estranged from their families. Three simple words carrying nuclear power potential.

In hosting beer summits, and devoting hours, even days, to such a banal non-issue, the President continues to look quite small. By continuing rather than ending the silliness, he looks frivolous and strangely unaware of his own role in the nation. By trying to fix something he never should have been involved in the first place, he looks arrogant.

Apologies are under-rated and oft-resisted. It can be painful to admit to others that you have been wrong. Paradoxically, however, in making the admission of error, you actually rise in the eyes of others. They respect you more, not less. They recognize that you are honest, know your own limits, and sincerely want what is best for others. President Obama would do well to learn this lesson. Hubris hides humility. And failing to utter three simple words can sink a leader, even a President.