We’ve opined frequently on the overly hawkish direction of Obama’s leadership on fiscal policy, but haven’t seen an opportunities to criticize his leadership style until this weekend. In an interview with CNN about the damage done to the Gulf ecology and economy by BP and oil service companies, Obama stated:
I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people.
‘But that’s not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem and ultimately this isn’t about me and how angry I am.
We think the president fumbled this one a bit. One aspect of his leadership style is to hold people accountable in a laid back fashion. But when a person or an organization screws up as monumentally as BP has, and has caused such severe external damages to so many, one of the most important things a leader can do is to give voice to his or her constituents’ emotions. In other words, “venting and yelling” is not about him in this situation. It’s about using his position to give a voice to those who need to feel like they’re being heard.
Ideally, it would be done in a constructive manner, but just as importantly, it must provide relief for constituents struggling with intense fear, anger, and anxiety, who have no way of expressing those emotions directly to the people and organizations who have caused them. In this kind of situation, leaders must give a public voice to people’s suffering and anger by emoting — express their anger facially, pound the podium and strike an intimidating posture on their behalves, etc (we recommend stopping short of kicking over teleprompters, throwing things, and breaking stuff).
The only aspect that’s about ‘me the leader’ is the style of voice used to convey people’s anger. There’s more than one way to convey anger vocally — the important thing is that there be no mistake about the emotions behind the words.
A good leader will also follow up on their commitment to ensure a fair measure of justice, and on that count, we don’t doubt Obama’s sincerity. But emotive leadership can act as an important safety valve in a situation that’s as socially destructive as this one. And that’s something that BP execs should appreciate more than anyone, despite any bunker/siege mentality they might be feeling at the moment.
And to be fair, Obama did say he was angry in the interview:
King asked ‘Are you angry at BP?’, Mr Obama responded: ‘You know, I am furious at this entire situation because this is an example where somebody didn’t think through the consequences of their actions.
‘It’s imperilling not just a handful of people. This is imperilling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years.
Again, we just think he fumbled the question. It was not, and is not, about his anger. It’s about his followers’ anger, and his capacity to give them a meaningful voice.
UPDATE 6/8/2010 – Perhaps driven by some of the flack over his comments to Larry King, Obama apparently took a sharp rhetorical turn yesterday in an interview that will be aired by NBC today: “The president defended his talks with Gulf fishermen and oil spill experts, saying their purpose was not academic – rather, they were an exercise in asserting where the presidential boot should be administered, ‘so I know whose ass to kick’.”