Leadership lapses in NSA spying, Obamacare rollout

President Obama claims little or no foreknowledge of the NSA spying on allies or the 'debacle' of the new health-care law's website. Are there valuable lessons in leadership from this?

AP Photo
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sworn in Oct. 30 prior to testifying before a House panel on the difficulties in implementing the Affordable Care Act.

Critics are taking President Obama to task for allegedly not knowing beforehand about two startling revelations: US spying on top allies and a lack of preparation for the Oct. 1 rollout of “Obamacare.” To many, it is difficult to believe that a buck-stops-here chief executive didn’t know of either one.

In her testimony before Congress on Wednesday, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took full responsibility for the “debacle” of the HealthCare.gov website, trying to let Mr. Obama off the hook. Meanwhile, one news report claims the president knew this past summer that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been bugging the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

If we take Obama at his word that he didn’t know, then Americans might ask if any modern president will ever enter the Oval Office in the 21st century with enough leadership qualities to conduct the giant orchestra that is the federal bureaucracy.

After one recent administration scandal – the Internal Revenue Service’s tracking of tea party groups – longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod said the government is so vast that no president can possibly know everything that goes on beneath him. True enough. But it would seem Obama might have been more diligent in tracking the implementation of his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. And he might have asked during his daily security briefings why the United States knows so much about Ms. Merkel’s views.

Is there an excuse for these presumed lapses? Leadership expert Michael Maccoby, based on his extensive work with businesses, says today’s larger and more complex organizations demand that leaders possess many more traits than in the past. Leaders are expected to inspire others yet also pay attention to detail. They must set a moral example yet manage people to get results. They must be heroic as an influencer yet humble after making a mistake. They must both motivate and measure. They must hold forth with ideas yet hold those below them – or themselves – accountable for failures.

The definitions of leadership are as plentiful as leadership consultants. One count puts the number of definitions at about 130 (and consultants in the thousands). Many of recent newly elected presidents prepare madly for the office. They read presidential biographies and consult past White House workers. Yet once in office, they still somehow have a long learning curve with what seems like an increasing number of scandals or lapses of leadership.

Two assumptions must be challenged about all this: One is that leadership resides only in one person. And two, that every person is limited in his or her ability to gain the qualities of leadership.

In judging Obama after these new revelations, critics must recognize that followers are equally responsible in making an organization tick. Relationships that function well are always two-way, not one-way. If blame is to be assigned about the NSA spying or Obamacare rollout, look at all those involved, not only the top guy.

And in any probe of such incidents, Congress and others must not only criticize lousy leadership but also find ways to enable a president to develop more qualities needed to perform better. To belittle a president as incapable of change is to assume any future president might be incapable of change. The US can’t afford that presumption of limitations.

In today’s charged and polarized Washington, it is not the default behavior to help the president be a better leader or hold subordinates equally responsible for lapses in what is termed “followership.” 

All of Washington is being held accountable by Americans. Public trust in government edged even lower in the latest Pew survey – before the government shutdown. Only 19 percent of those surveyed say that they trust the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time. That is down seven points since January.

When an orchestra messes up a symphony, the audience blames both the conductor and the players who were out of tune or dropped their instrument or misread the score. It also expects the conductor and players to eventually master the piece of music, especially if the conductor or players fess up to their mistakes. Can we not expect the same in Washington?

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