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Obama Must Launch Offensive Against Gridlock

The president must immediately launch a major offensive against gridlock if he is to achieve his goals beyond 2010.
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We all know leaders who can get things done but whose tactics leave a path of destruction. With each successive effort, organizational antibodies gather against the individual and his progress slows or even stops.

President Obama recently passed his first major piece of legislation. He won, but left a path of destruction. The numbers tell the story; Washington is in turmoil, perhaps more now than ever before. Last Monday's Pew Research poll found that almost eight in 10 Americans say they don't trust the federal government and have little faith it can solve the nation's problems.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, calls this, "a very, very negative climate of opinion about government."

With no course correction, the November elections will change the balance of power and meaningful change will slow or even stop. For the administration to achieve its aspirations beyond 2010, it must immediately launch a major offensive against gridlock.



possible to run a healthy organization with an opposition party. Take unions for example. Without an adversarial relationship between a company and its people, there would be no need for a union. Nevertheless, successful corporations like

United Parcel Service

(UPS) - Get United Parcel Service, Inc. Class B Report


General Electric

(GE) - Get General Electric Company Report

are unrelenting in their quest to improve union-management relationships. Companies that ignore their unions end up like

Eastern Airlines


Working effectively with an opposition party is also possible in government. The Clinton administration passed Medicare reform, the first tax cuts in 16 years and four consecutive balanced budgets without a House majority and with the highly adversarial leader New Gingrich. Ronald Reagan never had a Republican House majority, but his persistent negotiations with Tip O'Neill delivered dramatic changes at home and abroad.

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Obama can deliver on his promise of a post-partisan Washington. But it won't be easy. Here is a four-step recovery plan:

Step 1: Commit to Personal Change

In corporate America, no change, especially cultural change, is possible without CEO ownership. Similarly, there is no person other than the president who has the ability to break gridlock. Success or failure is in his hands.

First, Obama must decide, unambiguously, whether he will recommit to his vision of a post-partisan Washington. And his behavior must be absolutely consistent with that vision. A

New York Times

article last month had the headline, "Scolding GOP, Obama Makes 15 Recess Appointments." That's not it.

If the president decides to recommit as the nation's CEO he must be first to admit error. Sure, many are deserving of blame, but the leader must initiate the new relationship. This behavior is quite common among the world's best leaders. Jim Collins, author of "Good to Great," defines the highest level of leadership as Level 5. He defines Level 5 leadership as a "blend of personal humility and professional will." Great leaders willingly admit error. Rebuilding trust requires both sides to acknowledge their part of the problem and commit to new behaviors. "But, he hit me first!" isn't an acceptable excuse, even for children.

Step 2: Fire Pelosi and Reid

The two congressional leaders -- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- crafted and delivered a win. When it comes to rallying a party-line vote, both have proven their worth. But neither was able to deliver any congressional Republican votes. And that will be


key leadership skill if November elections alter the liberal-conservative balance.

Different leadership styles are appropriate for different leadership situations. Leadership literature calls this "situational leadership." In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca was able to pull together a warring management and union at


to bring the company back from the brink. Several years later he was pushed out. Iacocca was a turnaround master, but average at a company that required operational excellence. Success in one situation doesn't ensure success in another.

Step 3: Create a Joint Change Vision

In business, there is a fine line when partnering with unions. CEOs look for high-level buy-in and on specific projects, but typically don't include union leaders on day-to-day leadership teams. Engaging Republicans in high-level planning and for the next two years will greatly improve relationships and increase the probability of initiative passage.

Step 4: Renew the Congressional Operating Model

Every organization needs periodic renewal, a time to analyze its operations and commit to performance improvements. The process begins with an appointed leadership asking foundational questions. For Congress these might include:

  • How should Congress operate? What must it deliver and how?
  • What are the roles of congressional leaders and representatives? How and when should they be measured and how should those measures be publicized?
  • What behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable and what are the sanctions for inappropriate behavior?

Create a bipartisan team with a full-time mandate to review and renew Congress' operating model (i.e., how do things get done around here). Go process by process to determine current state and opportunities for improvements. There will be many opportunities to redesign processes, procedures and policies. Schedule milestone dates readouts with the press for the next 12 months. Even a small change in congressional performance would create a tremendous positive impact on the country. Make this initiative equal to health care in importance.

Now, more than ever, Americans see Washington as dysfunctional and corrupt. As America's CEO, this is President Obama's responsibility to fix. The president ran on a platform that blamed gridlock on the Bush administration's "arrogant" leadership. He now characterizes gridlock as "Washington politics as usual." When 80% of Americans distrust government, that's Washington at its worst. It didn't just happen. It's a result of many leadership choices. And


the president can lead the effort to make it better.

Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (, a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.