President Obama and Effective Change Leadership

Nearly two years after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on the promise of hope and change, many Americans are reportedly disappointed that hope and change hasn’t yet reached them.

Fair or unfair in this assessment of his first 20 months in office, I believe there are lessons to be learned in terms of effective change management. And though this is not meant to be a political blog, I believe there is much to be learned in the politics of business and the business of politics.

According to John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, best-selling author and widely regarded as an authority on leadership and change, “great leaders help people get in touch with their own aspirations and then help them forge those aspirations into a personal vision.”

In Kotter’s 1996 book “Leading Change,” the author provides a step by step process for successful change initiatives. Though our government is not run the same as a business, there are definitely lessons that can be learned from the business world with regard to implementing effective change.

Kotter’s Eight-Stage Process

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Creating the guiding coalition
  3. Developing a vision and strategy
  4. Communicating the change vision
  5. Empowering employees for broad-based action
  6. Generating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating gains in producing more change
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture

The central challenge in every one of Kotter’s eight steps is in changing people’s behavior: what people do and the need for significant shift in what people do. Changing this behavior is not a matter of more analysis to influence their thoughts as it is helping them see a truth to influence their feelings.

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings,” says Kotter.

President Obama is often perceived as overly cerebral and perhaps that explains why he primarily focuses on analysis in order to shift thinking. Unlike his predecessors Bill Clinton and especially Ronald Reagan, I believe Obama has been less successful in presenting truths to influence the kind of feelings necessary to accelerate change.

In spite of the deep domestic recession and two unpopular wars he inherited, Obama has made significant changes in financial regulation, health care and troop removal from Iraq. Republican resistance to these changes has focused on their belief that the first two of these changes are too far reaching and expensive.

The rising popularity of talk radio and sensational television news programs rely heavily on emotion with little hard facts or balanced analysis to support what may or may not be a truth. Regardless, the feelings provoked are what motivate change and that change may now mean a dramatic shift in congress with the upcoming mid-term elections.

In Kotter’s eight stages, it seems there are steps Obama may have skipped. What Obama did so well during his campaign was in developing a vision, but the strategy is where he may have fallen short once elected. Communicating a vision for hope and change—which he also did well during the campaign—seems to have little resonance after nearly two years in office.

One could certainly make an argument that Obama should also have established some shorter term wins than financial regulation and health care reform but, of course, he needed to play the hand he was dealt and that included some unpopular decisions during a crisis and in a very divisive environment.

In Kotter’s later book “The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations,” he states that successful change leaders need to employ the see-feel-change method.

See – Identify the problem or solution to a problem and enable others to visualize this in a way that creates a change in behavior.

Feel – Dramatize and make a compelling image that catches people’s attention, and ensure that this results in feelings that include passion, faith, trust, pride, hope, excitement, enthusiasm, urgency and/or fear to necessitate needed change. Emotions that can undermine change include anger, false pride, pessimism, arrogance, cynicism, panic, exhaustion, insecurity and anxiety.

Change – Different feelings—a change of heart—are what transform behavior. “The feelings change behavior,” says Kotter. “And with this change people are able to move through the eight necessary stages of large-scale change despite often huge difficulties.”

Obama was so effective at the see and feel parts during his presidential campaign, but navigating the challenges of governing with a fiercely divided congress during a time of war and recession has proved especially difficult. Perhaps revisiting Kotter’s eight stage process as a guide, Obama can then reclaim his leadership skills to affect the kind of change this country so desperately needs.

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