Obama as a Facilitative Leader

Posted by Kristin Arnold on November 30, 2010

I had the pleasure of reading this excerpt from The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter (2009. NY: Simon & Schuster) on the International Association of Facilitators’ Forum.   Thought I would share it with you.  Sounds to me like Obama has been through facilitator training!

“In staff meetings that require decision-making, Obama asks probing questions, listens politely to competing views, summarizes those views better than those who expressed them, and renders a logical and dispassionate decision.  He can process a series of questions, facts, and insights that are built on one another methodically.  He encourages full debate in the meeting rooms.  Joe Biden: “The guy really does want intelligent input that disagrees with him.”  Reagan and the Bushes would often make big decision with only a couple of advisors in the room.  Obama generally widens the circle to at least a half-dozen depending on the issue at hand.

In staff meetings, the president might start out by saying something like: “Okay, guys, Here’s what I’m thinking.” Then he’d set the table for discussion with a quick recitation of key points before asking, “What am I missing?” His style of inquiry went back to his days as a law school professor.  Sometimes it was a classic Socratic dialogue, with Obama asking all the questions; on other occasions it was more interactive.  The president was determined to use the time to methodically develop his thinking on a subject, even if that meant finding out where he was completely wrong.

His prodding, of course, could make the already intimidating experience of being in the president’s company even more unnerving for all but his most trusted and self-confident subordinates.  Obama wanted pushback and dissent.

His approach in meetings resembled that of a judge in a courtroom.  The president was often like a swing-vote Supreme Court justice peppering the lawyers on both sides with questions during oral arguments without revealing which side of the case he would come down on.  He embraced legal reasoning instinctively and would probe people in meetings for the weakness of their arguments.  Advisors were discouraged from being fierce advocates and encouraged to carefully deliberate complex and often contradictory evidence.  Anyone adamantly locked into a position didn’t last long as an advisor.

Cabinet secretaries and other principals usually brought along deputies, assistant secretaries, general counsels, and other subordinates.  Senior White House aides did the same.  After opening comments from the principal, Obama quickly beamed in on the experts, with senior officials interjecting occasionally for clarification.  Per tradition, subordinates sat not at the tables but in chairs along the wall.  Obama would frequently zing a question in their direction.  At first those with experience in other administrations felt a little disoriented by Obama’s style.  But the practice did more than expose Obama to a wider array of views; it also boosted morale. Obama managed to convey the impression that he viewed his people as colleagues.  This lack of explicit power assertion in his relationships created its own power.

The main fear inside the White House was lack of preparation.  If the president called on you, and he usually did, you had better bring something to the party.  Obama liked to jump around the room with his questions rather than moving down a row. When you did speak, he paid you the compliment of listening intently.

Obama dislikes “retrials.”  He carried into the presidency his distaste for revisiting settled questions.  Clintonian second-guessing was frowned upon.  Obama’s message to staff was: “It’s settled and I don’t want to see it on my desk again.”  But he was also determined to be flexible if new evidence and data was presented that was strong enough to reopen discussion.

At the end of a contentious meeting, the president would succinctly summarize all side’s most logical arguments.  For both outside advisors and close aides, the president’s ability to extract meaning from a wide-ranging discussion was one of his most impressive qualities.  Occasionally the president would then poll the room for a final sense of how everyone felt.

Meetings usually ended with a refreshingly clear “takeaway;” the president would say, “Okay, guys, here’s what I’m thinking and here’s where I want to go,” then enumerate (“One, two, three”) exactly what he meant.  As he wrapped up he’d often add, “Let me tell you five questions I want to address in the next session.” Advisors never left the room wondering what the point of the meeting had been.

Sometimes he would announce his decision immediately, and then adjourn the meeting.  When it was a harder call, he would say the subject needed more thought.  He often wouldn’t tip his hand until he’d had a chance to think about it for a day or two, late at night, or while working out in the gym.

In his way of expanding the views present in meeting deliberations, he avoided what the experts on expertise called “confirmation bias,” whereby even researchers with the best intentions analyzed data without the true disinterest that faith in research required.  Their conclusions, supposedly “based on the data,” were suspiciously close to where they would have ended up without all the graphs and statistics.”

[From Wikipedia: “*Confirmation bias* is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs.”]

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