“Obama, Explained,” by James Fallows in The Atlantic
Fallows’ 2012 epic tour de force is some 12,000 words long, so you’ll be lucky if you finish it before the election is over. But it provides one of the most in-depth critiques of the president’s leadership so far by examining four main categories of weaknesses—his inexperience, his coldness, his “complacency about talent” and the “symbolic mismatch” that exists between the “sweeping ambitions for political change” that Obama, the candidate, promised and “the incrementalist operator” that Obama really is. Fallows’ lengthy opus is grounded in the historical context that all presidents have failings, “each in a different way.”
“The Competitor in Chief,” by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times
While much shorter in length than some of the epic pieces listed here, Kantor’s September profile of Obama’s competitive drive fills out the contours of a leader so frequently described as pragmatic and ready to buckle under pressure from opponents. With great anecdotes (Obama even gets competitive when he reads children’s stories) and telling quotes (“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” he apparently said at the beginning of his 2008 campaign), Kantor’s piece shows the upsides and downsides of the president’s self-assuredness. “Four years ago, Barack Obama seemed as if he might be a deliberate professor of a leader, maybe with a touch of Hawaiian mellowness,” Kantor writes. “He has also turned out to be a voraciously competitive perfectionist.”
“Obama’s Way,” by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair
One might think by now there would be little left to learn about how Obama manages or how he thinks about leadership. But Lewis, the popular author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, was granted what appears to be unprecedented access to the president and comes away with some true gems (“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” Obama tells Lewis, because “I’m trying to pare down decisions. … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself”). We learn how Obama structures meetings (he does it so they’re not debates, but “mini-speeches”) and more about how he makes decisions (“Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that … You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out”).
Lewis attempts to get inside not just how Obama leads but what it’s like to be president, by repeatedly asking Obama what turns out to be a brilliant question: “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.” It works, leading to more introspection that one might expect from such a restrained politician after four years in office.
More from On Leadership:
Great leadership profiles of Paul Ryan
Great leadership profiles of Joe Biden
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