As President Obama's Executive Coach...

President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement on the fiscal cliff negotiations with congressional leaders in the briefin
President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement on the fiscal cliff negotiations with congressional leaders in the briefing room of the White House on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, in Washington. The negotiations are a last ditch effort to avoid across-the-board first of the year tax increases and deep spending cuts. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

As I travel the globe, meeting with senior executive teams, coaching CEOs and senior executives, and speaking to various management groups, it is clear to me that the world of business has very few outstanding leaders. Sadly, as I have observed President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner go "back and forth" in an apparent attempt to avoid the "fiscal cliff," I am left with the inescapable conclusion that the U.S. government likewise has few outstanding leaders.

Things always start with the chief executive. And, in this case, it starts with President Obama. In the world of politics and business, there are many very good leaders, as well as a vast supply of good leaders. The distribution of outstanding leadership, like anything else, follows the shape of a bell-shaped curve. I have always known this. Everyone has always known this. But, few of us really cared because being a good leader generally has been accepted as "sufficient" to keep a position -- or win reelection. Things are changing quickly, however -- very quickly. The bell-shaped curve representing the even distribution of leadership talent in any organization no longer can be accepted as "sufficient." It is mandatory that we -- as voters, employees, stakeholders, customers -- expect nothing short of consistent leadership greatness from our elected officials, including the President of the United States, CEOs and all leaders.

I had suspected the need for this critical distribution shift for a couple of years, but it became very clear in 2011 as I was interviewing CEOs as part of our Trends in Executive Development Research Study (Pearson, 2011). Beyond the actual research, an interesting qualitative note emerged. When I asked executives to identify a great leader in their lives -- someone who had a positive impact on them and helped shape their values and character -- roughly nine times out of 10, they mentioned a former teacher, coach, parent, grandparent, or friend, as opposed to a political or business leader. Unfortunately, the fact is that most of us whether we work in government or business, can identify the poor managers we have had much more quickly than we can the great ones. Why is this?

There is no clear answer; however, it is pretty clear that many people are promoted or elected into leadership roles before they are ready. They lack the experience or they have not been adequately coached, mentored or trained. More than anything else, I believe the speed and pace of change in business and the world, mounting financial pressure, rising debt, technology shifts, demographic shifts, and a more demanding operating environment -- not the least of which includes working successfully with a variety of constituent groups -- represent daunting challenges for most leaders, including President Obama. Frankly, only the very, very "best of the best" leaders in the world of politics or business possess the Leadership Intelligence (LI) required to drive true sustained greatness in their organizations. Leaders who possess a strong LI:

  • Possess a strong "inner-core" capability (i.e., character, values, empowering thoughts and beliefs, emotions, maturity, and learning agility to adapt and adjust to an ever increasing complexity and variety of people and situations);
  • Possess a strong "outer-core" capability (i.e., critical thinking, strategic thinking, decision-making, emotional intelligence, communication skills, team leadership, talent leadership, change leadership and drive for results; and
  • They continuously execute their "inner-core" and "outer-core" capabilities while being vigilant to the impact they have on individuals, constituent groups, and their organizations; they also possess a passionate and diligent focus on continuous improvement through course correction.

Identifying CEOs and Executives who Possess Leadership Intelligence

Boards often ask me what they should look for in identifying their next CEO. My answer is always clear: They need to look for people who possess both a strong "inner-core" and "outer-core" capability. They need to identify people with strong Leadership Intelligence. The most critical thing to look for and measure, however, is character.

The essence of character is undoubtedly multifaceted and complex. When working with organizations to help them identify their next CEO, I look for evidence that they are, at a minimum, courageous. I look for leaders who have the guts to make the tough but ethical decision. I look for their willingness to sometimes stand alone, in the teeth of pressure (possibly even from their own managers) from others who may want to go in a counter, sometimes less ethical direction. I look for leaders who also have the guts to collaborate, concede, compromise, and who possess the humility to submit at times if it is in the best interest of the whole. This is one area that President Obama and I would explore in depth as it appears to be an area he needs to strengthen. When coaching CEOs, I explain that saying no to the easiest and most rewarding route, when that decision doesn't align with what you know is the correct one, may seem difficult. However, as soon as you begin flirting with such a decision -- that may yield better operating results, greater revenue, greater profits, greater support from constituents but clearly compromises the very essence of your ethical and moral identity -- you enter a world of agony and stress. Making such choices will lead you into a world of painful long-term consequences, not the least of which is an increased probability you will say yes to more insidious acts in time. This is exactly what happened to Dennis Kozlowski, years ago as CEO of TYCO. Great leaders -- truly great leaders -- have the courage to make the right decision every time.

Great leaders also possess the character elements of diligence, gratitude, honesty, modesty, and loyalty.

Now, with this background, as President's Obama's executive coach, this is what I would have done at the beginning of his first term:

  • I would have assessed the strength and vibrancy of his "inner-core" and "outer-core" capabilities. I would have used a combination of in-depth interviews and objective assessments, including my own executive maturity assessment.
  • I would have supplemented these assessments with 360-degree interviews involving key stakeholders and constituents. We would have identified from these assessments, President Obama's leadership strengths and development needs.
  • We would have then prepared an initial leadership development plan and I would have encouraged President Obama to then get input from his stakeholder and constituent groups to help him finalize his leadership development plan.
  • I would have then had President Obama meet with his stakeholders and constituent groups individually and collectively to share his drive and passion to become the best leader he can be and that he cannot achieve this goal without the input, support and guidance from them (this step is often the most challenging for CEOs).
  • We would have then started executing this plan and I would have his stakeholders and constituents provide quarterly feedback to President Obama on the progress he is making on his leadership development plan.
  • I would have worked with President Obama on implementing powerful change strategies that would have leveraged his considerable leadership capability while also strengthening his considerable leadership development opportunities--coaching him on first strengthening his "inner-core" as a foundation to strengthening his "outer-core" leadership skills.

You get the picture, right? If President Obama had been coached years ago using these steps and strategies, I am confident we would have avoided the "fiscal cliff" and been much further along as a nation. This is not a political comment; rather this is a comment on President's Obama's need, as our nation's CEO, to strengthen his Leadership Intelligence (LI).