As leadership challenges go, waking up as President-Elect is probably top of the heap. The weight of expectation on the winner’s shoulders this time around is particularly hard to imagine. If four turbulent years and almost unprecedented economic upheaval weren’t enough, the Obama campaign has itself added significantly to its own burden: “Change we can believe in” could yet easily turn from a mantle to a cage.
Having mounted a campaign – née a mantra for change from a perceived position more radical than his history suggests is just one part of why Obamawatching will be so interesting. Although campaigning for a chance to bring change and actually bringing it about are, of course, very different things. (The early months of the first Clinton administration might be a case in point.)
Certainly if one key element of leadership and change is communication, then the President-Elect could be formidable: his was one of the best-run campaigns for a major office ever witnessed. And it was striking that he not only powerfully embraced new media – many observers count this as critical in his victory – but that he inspired huge numbers of people to engage in the electoral process for the first time. And not all of them young people. His initial scoresheet looks healthy in the Inspiring Leader section. [He will face one important change here of his own, however: the faithful Blackberry may not be seeing as much service in the coming months.]
But another interesting aspect of Obama is his promise to be more bi-partisan (adj: of, relating to, or involving members of two parties). In a political landscape where there was talk of ‘two nations’ and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’, this is radical thinking. But bipartisan is suddenly a word that cropping up all over the press: click to see examples at The New York Times, the Financial Times, even the Dutch Volksrant.
Could this be another highware act for the Presidential circus? Already some commentators point that only one Republican has yet been appointed (and that that is in itself nothing new). And if leadership is about bringing about change, how does the bipartisan approach – which effectively translate in one way as ’embracing the old ways’ – sit with this? Obama’s election reflected his strengths in vision, inspiration and courage: so far, he has earned his people’s trust. But how will his leadership turn out once he takes office?
With America – one of the most complex organisations in the world, after all – at several crossroads, the President-Elect will certainly make a fascinating case study in leadership in practice.