Obama Sets the Tone


Think tanks, authors, and gurus have written lots of advice for incoming presidential appointees, including the IBM Center. But the best set of pointers come from President Obama himself in a recent interview with the Washington Post’s Michael Shear:

“Obama reacted to questions about the emerging structure of his White House by displaying confidence in his ability to manage people. He has begun assembling a powerful team of White House counselors who will compete with Cabinet secretaries for influence over the majority of domestic and foreign policy issues.

‘The theory behind it is I set the tone,‘ Obama said. ‘If the tone I set is that we bring as much intellectual firepower to a problem, that people act respectfully towards each other, that disagreements are fully aired, and that we make decisions based on facts and evidence as opposed to ideology, that people will adapt to that culture and we’ll be able to move together effectively as a team.’. . . He added, ‘I have a pretty good track record at doing that.'”

The challenge won’t be President Obama’s behavior. The challenge is expecting that same behavior from his 4,000 appointees. His leadership approach should be made a condition of employment by his office of presidential personnel for his appointees, be a part of their appointee orientation, and be enforced by the White House, their peers and the media if President Obama hopes to see real change. No one, not even high visibility cabinet secretaries should be exempt.  If he can get his appointees to mirror his leadership style, the government will truly change.

One Response to “Obama Sets the Tone”

  1. Stephen Buckley Says:

    You say:
    “The challenge is expecting that same behavior from his 4,000 appointees.”

    Yes, but it can not onlly be the political appointees that have to model the President’s open-mindedness in listening to new ideas (i.e., challenges to the status-quo). What about the remaining 100,000 federal managers in the chain-of-command?

    What is a senior career manager supposed to do when his Schedule-C political appointee acts dismissively and prematurely in a meeting with subordinates? Call the White House and blow the whistle on his boss?

    And what about the 10 next lower levels of management? What is the mechanism that makes it expected (and safe) when any manager — at any level — puts the kibosh on “new thinking”?

    The National Performance Review never really “empowered employees” in the federal government because it never really made it safe for federal employees to feel free to speak up about how to make things “work better and cost less”.

    If your boss does not want to hear about how he might not be doing such a good job, then he will not change his stripes because a bunch of atta-boy “Hammer Awards” are given out.

    The best answer is a totally anonymous online system (like many private companies use to comply with Sarbox) that allows employees to raise concerns (and ideas) that are unsafe to raise with bosses that just want their office’s shortcomings to remain invisible to higher-ups (i.e., most federal managers).

    Stephen Buckley
    former Moderator, REGO-L listserv
    Chatham, Mass.
    H/O: 508-945-0518

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