Tuesday, 17 January 2012 00:43

Is Barack Obama A Leader?

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This paper delineated what leadership and management is and asks whether in that light Barack Obama is a leader. It points out that Obama lacks leadership experience but has the potential to become a leader.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

In this brief paper, I will define leadership in as succinct a manner as is possible. In light of what leadership is, I will ask: is Barack Obama a leader?

To lead is to be out front beckoning other persons to follow you. To lead means that you have a dream, a vision of where you want to go to and start moving in that direction and those around you judge that where you are going is good for them and follow you. To lead is to posit well clarified goal(s) and objective(s) and move in its direction and those around you follow you.

To follow the leader, the led must feel that where he is going is in their best interests; that he serves their common good.

Please note that a leader is not a person who is tall, charming and smiles a lot (although those personal attributes certainly help). A leader is a person who wants to do something for the people and the people believe that what he wants to do for them is good for them and follow him.

Experience teaches us that the majority of the people are followers. (There is a debate going on as to whether leaders are born or made. Obviously, we can train for certain attributes of leadership but there are some that are inborn, such as charisma. Great leaders are probably both born and made.) They do not have clear ideas of where they want to go to. They may have vague ideas of goals they desire but generally do not articulate those goals and or do something about attaining them (wishing for something is not leadership; doing something for what is wished for is what separates mere dreamers from leaders).

When the people see a person that appears to have clarity of purpose they feel invigorated by him and follow him. People are actually willing to jump into fire for a good leader. Napoleon Bonaparte once was standing by a frozen river and it occurred to him that if he asked his generals to jump into the river and drown that they would do so. That is to say that he understood the power leaders have on followers. Leaders guide followers to good or to bad.

If you have observed children play, you have probably noticed that in a neighborhood generally one or two of the boys are the ones who would go get a football and come knocking on the doors of the other boys asking them to come and play football, soccer with him. He gets the boys out and organizes them: he says, you, play center; you, play right forward; you, play left forward; you, play backer (defense); you, play goalie etc. He tells them that their goal is to win the game. He points to the other team and tells his team members that they must work as a team, cooperate in order to defeat the other team.

For the game to be fun there must be rules, well delineated rules under which all players play. No cheating allowed. If you win playing under rules you feel exhilarated, alive, like a conqueror.

If there is cheating then it is no longer sports but something like Nigeria, the land of every behavior goes, the land of thieves who do exactly as they like but do not operate by the rule of law. In sports there must be rules for winning to be joyful. The thief takes what you have from behind your back hence is not a courageous person and because he did not obtain his wealth from a manly activity he is a coward and knows it, and nobody respects him. He may try to get men to respect him by masquerading with empty titles, as Nigerians do, the fact is that he is a coward and men are programmed by their genes not to respect cowards. Men respect those who play by the rules set for a game. Nigerian leaders, those who came to office not by the rules but by stealing their offices would never be respected in the community of nations. The Nigerian head of state may stand on his head the fact remains that he was rigged into office hence a thief and not any ones role model.

Nigerians idea of leadership is to be appointed the head of whatever organization they are a member of but not to do anything for such organizations. Just being seen as the president is enough for the clowns. If you go to their meetings, particularly Igbo meetings, all of them are struggling to be the leaders and if they do not get appointed one they leave and go form other organizations where they are the leaders. It never occurs to these misguided clowns that leaders actually do something and that it is what they do that matters, not their positions. But we are talking personality disorder here, not mental health.

For our present purpose, leaders posit desired goals, mobilize the people and coordinate their activities in pursuit of those goals and establish controls over what they do.

Leaders are rare. This is why when a society is blessed by a good leader folk find direction in their lives but if cursed with bad leadership they are lost (as Nigerians are lost because they have criminals for leaders).

When Ronald Reagan was the President of the USA, his self assurance and single minded focus on defeating what he called the evil empire, the USSR, his mobilizing of resources to improve the US military, made Americans walk tall and hold their heads high. Americans felt proud to be Americans.

Compare and contrast to what Nigeria's criminal leaders do for Nigerians. Everywhere you go the moment folk find out that you are a Nigerian they assume that you are a potential thief like your leaders are. At airports all over the world Nigerians are treated as thieves, as unwanted pariahs and subjected to humiliating searches (custom officers allegedly even stick their fingers into their women's vaginas to make sure that they are not hiding drugs in there!). Nigeria's leaders make Nigerians ashamed of being Nigerians and prompt them to hide their faces. In America, one often runs into some Nigerians, as shown by their heavily accented speaking, and they would deny that they are Nigerians; they do not want to be automatically seen as criminals!

The compact between leaders and followers is for leaders to point to direction(s) and for the followers to follow in that direction. There must be a direction for followers to follow.

What I have said, so far, is that a leader is a person who has clarity of vision, an understanding of what his society and or work organization desires, articulates it and mobilizes the people to go get it.

To achieve any goal we all know that we must expend certain resources. You need men (manpower, human resources) and materials (capital, money etc). Thus, leaders in addition to pointing to the direction they want their group to go obtain for the group members the resources they need to do so. They train and recruit men with the requisite skills necessary for achieving their dreams. They obtain materials for obtaining the dreams. They make sure that financial institutions work right, that manufacturing works right and is producing what the people need to do their work.

In the literature we distinguish between leadership and management, though in real life both are intertwined. We define leaders as those who set the direction, the tone of their country's movement and public discourse. We define management as, more or less, those who achieve the goals set by leaders.

A leader does not necessarily have to be an engineer or MBA in finance but he must be able to use persons with those skills to achieve his goals.

A manager, on the other hand, must have demonstrated managerial skills, which includes operations management, understanding of business/corporate and public finance, accounting, human relations, industrial relations aka labor relations, customer care, contracts aka business law, organizational theory aka organizational behavior, basic economics, general principles of management, management of small businesses, entrepreneurship etc. (Please see my book, The Art of Leadership for Africans and other writings on leadership and management.)

The leader plays more of a psychological role in that he sets the atmosphere under which work is done; he influences the organizational culture (to be highly productive or indolent and unproductive) and imbues his workforce with what needs to be done.

Managers, on the other hand, take the leader's ball and run with it. Managers do not have to set organizational goals but they must understand the specific goals their business organizations exist to accomplish and use men and material to achieve them.

There are many levels of management. The top level, the CEO, the president and his vice presidents are, more or less, like leaders in that they are expected not only to know the original goal that the organization came into being to attain but to set new ones. The environment changes and top managers must read it correctly and revise their goals if they are to survive. Business organizations that fail to redirect their efforts to meet new challenges generally die out.

Middle managers head departments and must understand finance, budgets and human behavior, for they use material resources and men to achieve their departments goals.

Finally, there are the first line managers, supervisors or lead workers. Supervisors are of two kinds, those who do not do the work directly and those who do the work and still lead. The job of the supervisor is to use a small team (the ideal span of control is thought to be no more than ten workers, assuming that you want to be an effective supervisor) to do the immediate productive work.

Consider a supervisor as your University Department Chair person, your lead worker on the job. Supervisors are not managers in the sense that no one expects them to understand finance, budgets and where the organization wants to go; they are expected to just do the work assigned to their unit.

We promote to managerial positions those supervisors who appear to have managerial potential. At the university level, the Dean of a school is considered a middle manager; the president and his vice presidents are considered top managers (CEOs). Top managers must understand finance and politics (they deal with politicians, who are their customers, in getting moneys for their schools....have you heard of TQM, total quality management and know who your customer is?).

Let me recapitulate what I have, so far, said. Leaders set the goals that work organizations strive to accomplish; managers' work with line staff to accomplish the goals set by leaders.

If you bear this abbreviated definition of leadership in mind, now ask yourself: Is Mr. Barack Obama a leader and or a manager?

To answer that question you must identify the goals he has set for the nation, goals that he wants to accomplish. Having identified the goals you must assess his level of passion and enthusiasm in seeking to accomplish those goals.

You see, any one can say that we should go to the moon, but leaders are a bit different from merely saying what we should do. Leaders infuse the people with passion for working towards attaining the desired objective.

To make other persons enthusiastic in doing their work, leaders must be extraordinarily enthusiastic for their goals.

When the Russians beat Americans into space, President Kennedy gave his now famous speech which reads something like this: by the end of the decade (of the 1960s) we shall send a man to the moon.

In that brief statement, JFK summarized the essence of leadership. He has set a goal of sending a man to the moon. Now he must show how to accomplish it. He went to Congress and twisted arms, used every measure, nice and brutal, to get the legislators to make resources available to his NASA. That is to say that he made material resources available to the space program. He went to the universities and established a scholarship fund for those who want to study science. If you are good at chemistry, physics and biology and engineering you pretty much got your school feels paid for you by the country. What was the purpose? The purpose was to produce the scientists and engineers necessary for sending a man to the moon.

Kennedy by his charismatic nature got the nation into a fever pitch working to send a man to the moon. In July of 1969 the nation sent a man to the moon; Neil Armstrong, an American, became the first man to walk on the moon.

Please note what has transpired here. A leader with a goal mobilized his nation, his people and their resources to get them to work for attaining a goal. He made his country men want to work twenty four hours a day, his nation's students want to study twenty four hours a day.

(Does any thief at Abuja make any Nigerian enthusiastic to do his work: if the president is off to Saudi Arabia...by the way he has no business using our airplane for private journeys, he must reimburse the nation every time he uses that plane for unofficial purposes...how is he going to get the people to work hard? The leader must be perceived to work very hard. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy and his advisors did not go to sleep; they were at their work stations figuring out how to checkmate the Russian bear.)

A leader is like a military officer (that is why it is generally preferred for presidents to be ex-generals in the military). He identifies an objective to be conquered by his army, say, a hill (a country) and asks his men to follow him and they go get it. He must have clarity of objective for the men to follow him in achieving it. (As the popular adage says, if you do not know where you are going to you will get nowhere.)

If the military commander starts moving in the direction of the goal men follow him. He cannot in midstream say: oh, by the way that is not what I want to capture (as Obama said a couple of weeks ago when at one of his talkfest he said that the Public Option aspect of the Health Care Reform is only a saliva of the reform package...that statement lost him whatever credibility he has).

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176