Obama’s Advice for Would-Be CEOs

by Derek Loosvelt | September 12, 2012

From January through June of this year, Michael Lewis, a former bond trader and author of numerous highly acclaimed books, including The Big Short, Moneyball, and Liar’s Pokers (for which Lewis recently wrote a film script), was given nearly unparalleled access to President Barack Obama. Lewis shadowed Obama in the White House, on Air Force One, even on the basketball court. And, in a more than 13,000-word article entitled “Obama’s Way” in the October issue of Vanity Fair, Lewis writes about his time with the president, revealing, among other things, part of Obama’s managerial style, as well as some tips that Obama has to offer any would-be Commanders in Chief. All of which, I thought, might be helpful for any manager in any corporation. I also thought the president's managerial style and tips might be especially helpful to anyone with designs on leading a company, large or small. And so, below, are seven pieces of advice gleaned from “Obama’s Way”:

1. Don’t surround yourself with ‘yes men’
The way to get the best out of yourself is not to surround yourself with those who will bow down to you but with those who will actually challenge you. And, to that end, Lewis writes that Obama often plays a rather heated game of five-on-five. The participants in these basketball games (which occur a few times a week in D.C. but Obama only joins when he can) all played college ball—all, that is, except Obama (the president played high school basketball in Hawaii and his team won a state championship but Obama wasn’t even one of the starters). Along with being more accomplished (which is to say much better) than the president, many of these players are a couple of decades younger. But, apparently, Obama still doesn’t let any of them take it easy on him. Lewis writes:

When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.
“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.

2. Fuel your competitive nature
Whether you’re trying to increase the bottom line, productivity, efficiency, a product, or all of these things at once, a competitive nature is needed to succeed. And on the court, in the pickup games described above, Obama, according to Lewis, has one goal in mind: winning. And this competitive nature doesn’t stay on the court. Lewis writes:

After the fifth game, with the president’s team up 3–2, guys started drifting toward their gym bags in the way they do when everyone thinks it’s over.
“I could go one more,” said Obama.
Nesbitt [Obama’s closest friend who was watching the game] hooted. “He’s actually going to take the risk of letting this thing get tied up? That’s out of character.”
“He’s that competitive?” I asked.
“Even games we never play. Shuffleboard. I don’t know how to play shuffleboard. He doesn’t know how to play shuffleboard. But if we play, it’s like ‘I can beat you.’”

3. Exercise
The higher you rise the corporate the ladder, the more responsibilities and stress you have. Thus, the sharper your body and mind will need to be. Obama, to keep himself in shape, works out every morning from 7:30 to 8:30 (he alternates days between cardio and weights). Lewis writes:

“You have to exercise,” [Obama] said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.”

4. Pare down decisions
In addition to responsibilities and stress, the higher you rise the org chart, the more your days become about decision-making. Until, at the very top, it’s pretty much all about decision-making. Lewis writes:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” … You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day.

5. Own your decisions—even the not-so-great ones
What comes with making decisions all day is the possibility that some of these decisions will not be perfect. In fact, they might be downright wrong, or bad decisions. Still, a good manager knows to stick strongly to his decisions and own up to them, no matter the outcome. Lewis writes:

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. 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 and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

6. Listen to your subordinates—even those in very junior roles.
One of the more gripping sections of Lewis’s piece takes place in a meeting where Obama and his staff are discussing what plan of action to take in Libya this past spring. Although more nuanced, the decision basically came down to this: Should the U.S. send troops or not? If so, American lives could be lost and/or the decision would turn out to be a very bad one, politically speaking. If not, there’s a possibility that hundreds of thousands of Libyans could be massacred. Lewis writes:

The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. “Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” says one participant. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.” Says another person at the meeting, “He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do.” … His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.s … And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established status structures. After all, he became president.

7. Relax—when, and if, you have the time
Lewis writes:

Aboard Air Force One, I’d asked [Obama] what he would do if granted a day when no one knew who he was and he could do whatever he pleased. How would he spend it? He didn’t even have to think about it:
When I lived in Hawaii, I’d take a drive from Waikiki to where my grandmother lived—up along the coast heading east, and it takes you past Hanauma Bay. When my mother was pregnant with me she’d take a walk along the beach. . . . You park your car. If the waves are good you sit and watch and ponder it for a while. You grab your car keys in the towel. And you jump in the ocean. And you have to wait until there is a break in the waves. . . . And you put on a fin—and you only have one fin—and if you catch the right wave you cut left because left is west. . . . Then you cut down into the tube there. You might see the crest rolling and you might see the sun glittering. You might see a sea turtle in profile, sideways, like a hieroglyph in the water. . . . And you spend an hour out there. And if you’ve had a good day you’ve caught six or seven good waves and six or seven not so good waves. And you go back to your car. With a soda or a can of juice. And you sit. And you can watch the sun go down …
When he was done, he thought again and said, “And if I had a second day … ” But then the airplane landed, and it was time for us to get off.
“If I were president I think I might keep a list in my head,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “That’s my last piece of advice to you. Keep a list.”

Read More
Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair)
Author Michael Lewis Gets Unprecedented White House Access (CNBC)

Filed Under: Finance | Networking | Workplace Issues


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