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Obama v/s Narsimha

The other day I was chatting with an American friend of mine and inevitably the conversation turned to politics and I shared my perception that the President Obama seemed to be achieving precious little. He gives great speeches, seems to have tons of ideas, is in the thick of much but seemingly getting little done. The huge weight of expectations which he carries on his shoulders is certainly not helping. My friend who claimed to be very politically aware seemed to agree.

Later I was thinking of our chat and my mind wandered to an India Prime Minister of the 1990s, PV Narasimha Rao. He came with absolutely no expectations of even lasting a year of his term. He turned out to be one of India’s longest lasting PMs. He had extraordinarily poor communication skills and no one would call him a great looker. He got the job that no one wanted. India was in the throes of its worst financial crisis with the threat of defaulting just days away. Against this backdrop he pulled off India’s most stunning financial recovery and unleashed India’s growth.

Two very dissimilar men, with kind of seemingly similar challenges.

Of course it’s not even a year to Obama’s term so I am by no means suggesting that he has not succeeded.

Some learnings come to mind

1. Expectations : When the world has very high expectations of you, there is usually one possible outcome. Disappointment. Be it sport or politics it is the same. Irrespective of where you end, even if it is better than anyone else, people tend to remember that expectations were not met. So as a leader it is very important to manage expectations. Sometimes as leaders there is little you can do about the expectations people have. The challenge becomes one of managing expectations. After Federer lost the US Open he made light of it by saying he still had a great year because he won 2 Grand Slams and was in the finals of the other 2. That was a tone of a loser. Before the tournament, he talked about going for the win!

2. Clarity: Say what you are going to do and do it. Looking at the debate on health care there seems to be a lot of cross talk and what the reform is, is not very clear. Again I am an outsider and have no stakes so probably have not spent much time to read the fine print. I am reminded of a client who talked about his boss who once addressed a meeting of the sales staff with a cent in his hand and said ‘at the end of the year we need to add a cent in value to every share of this company’. Simple. Powerful. Clear. I am sure healthcare is extremely complex, but the common man needs it to be simplified so he/she can rally behind it.

3. Ownership:Chicago lost the Olympics bid. Who took the flack? Obama. The healthcare reform is in a mess. Who gets the flack? Obama. Palestine-Israel meeting in NY didn’t go too well. Who is responsible? Obama. Afghanistan war took a turn for the worse. Who needs to answer? Obama. Is it me or does it seem like we have a One man squad. Going back to Narasimha Rao. He picked Manmohan Singh. Told him to fix the economy. Got out of the way, and used his political skills to negotiate with the parties. Even Bush, while he got the laughs, seemingly had a strong team of people who were primarily responsible for parts of governing. Paulson for economy. Rice for State. Gates for defence. etc. Maybe Bush gave them, or didn’t directions, but when things didn’t work out or indeed when they did the parties responsible were clear.

3 things all great leaders need

1. Manage expectations well

2. Define clear outcomes

3. Get a team to own and execute


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