Basketball strategy should guide President Obama's governance

By Paul Gorrell
Saturday, January 23, 2010

There has been a great deal of reflection this week on President Obama's challenges during his first year in office. My sense is that critiques of Obama's leadership style should factor in the symbolic shift that occurred when he went from candidate to president: We elected a basketball player who has become a golfer.

All those readers who are golf devotees, please bear with me. Obama the golfer is simply not a good image for the president in these times. Perceptions are critical to a leader's ability to gain trust, build momentum -- or produce dissatisfaction. These days, the basketball player we met during the campaign would be a more welcome and effective leader. Consider:

-- Basketball is a game of the people. Whether it's played in an urban park, schoolyard or community center, people of all ages can walk up and join. Fans can fill an arena. Golf, in contrast, is a sport of the privileged, who gather in private clubs that tend to charge exorbitant fees. At a time when so many face economic uncertainty, the visuals of golf do not help the president demonstrate empathy and compassion.

-- Basketball is a highly physical but strategic sport; it has complicated team defenses and individual plays. It also requires toughness -- the willingness to force one's way past a competitor, often banging into him in the process. This is clearly not the case with golf, which requires discipline, finesse and patience -- all in a pastoral setting. Obama was admired for being tough in a long, difficult campaign. Now, though, he comes across as distant and disengaged, unwilling to throw an elbow.

-- In basketball, the high score wins. In golf, the low score wins. Simply put, Americans like high scores. To be fair, Obama has clocked many successes in the past year. But the president set high expectations by enumerating several challenging goals for his administration. The dominant image in recent days is of a leader who has not yet achieved his signature issue and is too cautious in trying to avoid error.

-- Basketball requires intensity at every moment. Players go from being on offense to defense in a nanosecond. In golf, some moments require intense focus, but those times are few and far between. We all know that good executives delegate, knowing when to end discussions or allow others to take over. But the executive should also know when to be fully engaged, when to take on issues that only he can drive home. Obama needs to get in the game with more obvious intensity.

-- In golf, the individual stands on his own every step of the way. In basketball, team play is the way to victory. A great executive brings together individuals to empower the group and then creates the team effectiveness required to achieve success. The president has a history of bringing folks together, but he seems to have lost his capacity for creating high-performing teams that demonstrate synergy and drive results.

The job of the presidency is not going to get easier anytime soon. Mr. President, please do us all a favor and put away the golf clubs. We need the basketball player we elected.

Paul J. Gorrell, ethicist and co-author of "The Coaching Connection," works as a principal at Partners International, a consulting firm that provides leadership and career development.

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