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To:  Barack Obama, President of the United States

From:  Krista Clements Orlan, Student of Servant Leadership

Re:  Thoughts as You Enter Your Second Term

Congratulations on your recent election win!  As a constituent who voted for you in both the 2008 and 2012 elections I want to express my joy that you are our president.  I appreciate the charismatic style of leadership you have brought to the office.  In these difficult times our country has been facing, with the fears of terrorism and the threat of economic collapse, it is important for the people to have a friendly face and voice of hope to go to when the future is uncertain.  You have confidently and optimistically led our country over the last four years despite fierce partisan opposition, and I am certain you will bring the hard work you began to a positive resolution as you move “Forward” into your second term.

I have been studying servant leadership and politics this semester at Viterbo University.  It has been an insightful course of study during the last leg of your election campaign, and now looking into the future of your next term.  There were several topics covered during the course that I would like to share with you as you go forward.  I hope you find my thoughts on politics as a vocation, credibility, and how they apply to you specifically, helpful in navigating through these next four years.  In the end, I offer these insights as rain and sunshine for the emerging servant leader within you.

Politics as a Vocation

            One of the first topics explored in class was the idea of politics as a vocation according to German economist and sociologist, Max Weber.  In a lecture given to the Free Students Union of Munich University in 1919, Weber offers his definition of politics and the state, explains politics as a vocation, discusses the three types of authority, and considers the needed compromise between an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility in decision-making.

Weber defines politics as “any kind of independent leadership in action” (1919, p.1).  Politics happen within the family, in the workplace, within any aspect of life.  For purposes here, I am referring to the politics of the state.  Weber defines the modern state “sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force” (1919, p.1).  Using this definition, the United States of America is an association of governments acting together to decide if and when physical force is used to control international or civil situations.  As the president of these United States it is your primary duty to decide when and when not to go to war as the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army and Navy (Koh, 2001).

The authority of president, this power to make or not make war, has come to you due to your charisma.  Weber outlines three distinct types of leadership in his lecture.  There is the traditional or legitimate leader – one who assumes his position through inheritance or local custom.  Second is leadership by legality – someone whose power is a product of policy or law.  And finally, there is the charismatic leader – a person who rises to the position due to a heroic personality that inspires confidence from his constituents (Weber, 1919, p. 2).

This last leadership type is that of the elected official, and where the heart of politics as a vocation lies.  The charismatic personality of the elected politician bubbles up from who they are, not from the position itself.  Elected officials are called by their constituents to their positions by virtue of who they are and when the leader’s “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Buechner, 2012).  This makes charismatic leadership unstable because authority can be taken away based on the whim of constituents.  This whim is continually being swayed by the leader’s personality and the day-to-day decisions made on behalf of the state.

Weber continues to discuss utilizing various ethics in political decision-making.  A charismatic leader will tend towards an ethic of ultimate ends where his focused passion for a cause will lead to any means necessary to achieve the end.  However this ethic lacks any regard for consequences, and this is where a politician can find himself in trouble with his constituents.  An ethic of responsibility is needed to balance the fervor of the ethic of ultimate ends so that all stakeholders are considered.  Weber surmises that political leaders acting through the vocational call will balance an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility in sound decision-making.  This is the path of the mature leader; the one who is able to guide the state along the path of long-term success and not get lost in the short-term wins.  This tactic will lead to credibility with constituents and support longevity in the vocation.

An interesting picture emerges when considering Weber’s thoughts on politics as a vocation and the direction for your second term as president.  I believe you were re-elected largely in part to your past decision-making on war and other physical conflict on behalf of the nation.  During the 2008 campaign you promised to end the Iraq War safely and responsibly within sixteen months and this was a promise you kept (Gibson, 2011).  During a 2008 presidential debate against Senator McCain you stated:

“And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think we have to act, and we will take them out.  We will kill bin Laden.  We will crush al-Qaida.  That has to be our biggest national security priority” (Adair, 2011).

This was another promise kept.

Not only did you keep these promises but you demonstrated a good balance in ethics of ultimate ends and responsibility in achieving these goals. “Although about 48,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq as a transitional force, the bulk of the combat forces were headed home by the end of summer 2010,” reported FOX News (Gibson, 2011).    You considered the consequences to the Iraqi people if you pulled our troops out all at once and decided a transition was needed to ensure long-term peace in the region. According to CNN, 57% of Americans trust you to handle an international crisis as opposed to only 50% for Romney (2012).  This demonstrates your decisions in regards to international force have created credibility with the American people.

It is important to move forward with other international conflicts in a similar manner during your second term.  The American people are expecting you to move firmly, yet not recklessly, in international affairs.  We want to consider the impact our forceful actions have on other countries.  Proceeding in this same direction will ensure continued call by your constituents to the role of the charismatic leader as your presidency is over and new political opportunities evolve.

Credibility

The course bookend to Weber has been James Kouzes & Barry Posner’s book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It.  The book fleshes out thirty years of ongoing research into leadership.  The bulk of the work focuses on the six steps to building and maintaining credibility as a leader: discover your self, appreciate constituents, affirm shared values, develop capacity, serve a purpose, and sustain hope (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 35).  As I stated earlier, you were successful in building credibility with American voters during your first term of office; this is why you were re-elected.  Now your challenge is to maintain that credibility throughout the remainder of your presidential career.  Indulge me as I explore how you built credibility in each of the six areas, and make recommendations on how you can continue to build credibility into the future.

“To be credible, you need to have trust in your abilities to do what you believe, especially in uncertain and challenging situations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 43).  In a nutshell, this is the ultimate challenge of self-discovery for a leader.  You are a great leader because your life has been focused on self-discovery and this self- awareness has provided you what you needed to lead an entire country.  Author, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, called your book, Dreams from My Father, “one of the most powerful books of self-discovery I’ve ever read” (Obama, 2004, back cover).  Through the process of writing this book you were able to unpack a lifetime worth of searching for your True Self in a way most people do not take the time or energy to embark.

I also had the pleasure of reading your second book, The Audacity of Hope, where you explore what you believe about our nation and how the government can best address our country’s needs.  You sought out the best educational opportunities available in our country at Harvard, and have taken your book smarts to the streets as a community organizer in Chicago, as well as the halls of Congress, in order to build your competencies.  The sum of all your life experiences and how you have aggressively sought to make sense of them has instilled in you the confidence to lead a nation.

As you move through these next four years, it is important that you always take time to contemplate who you are at this moment.  Self-discovery is an ongoing process.  Who we are is constantly developing.  Being in touch with who you are right now will keep you grounded and confident in making the difficult decisions needed of the president.

Credible leaders appreciate their constituents.  They listen deeply and ask for feedback.  They also encourage constructive controversy as a way to make better decisions and build commitment within their teams.  In observing you through the media over the last several years, you make a point of relating to the average American. You are frequently pictured in everyday situations with everyday people, for instance, eating pie in a café or playing a game of basketball.  You always look completely comfortable and honestly happy to be spending time with these people.  As an “average American” myself, I have always enjoyed these media moments as a window into a man who is just like me and appreciates who I am and what I go through as part of this society.  That is pretty amazing considering you are a black man and I am a white woman.

Moving forward, I think it will be necessary for you to shift your energy toward building credibility with your immediate stakeholders, namely the Republican members of Congress. There is much bi-partisan work to be done in addressing the federal budget deficit, the sagging economy, and federal healthcare legislation. It will be important for you to promote constructive controversy in order to come to the best decisions in a way that does not drive a wedge further between the two political parties.  This is a tall order, but a challenge I believe you can undertake.  While editor of the Harvard Law Review you were known for your unique ability to work constructively with conservative editors on the Review.  In an interview shortly after being elected as the first black president of the Review board you explained, “If I’m talking to a white conservative who wants to dismantle the welfare state, he has the respect to listen to me and I to him. That’s the biggest value of the Harvard Law Review. Ideas get fleshed out and there is no party line to follow” (Drummond, 2008).  Unfortunately, in the White House there is a party line to follow, and this is what will make your second term particularly challenging.  Keep striving to understand conservative perceptions, concerns, and values in regards to these issues as a way to keep the conversation headed toward compromise.

Once a credible leader understands their stakeholders values they can build further credibility and confidence by affirming the values that are held in common.  This has been a difficult task during your first term and the most complicated area of credible leadership in the current political climate.  The problem of affirming shared values between liberal and conservative factions has not been your problem, but that of the parties.  Christine Lee, a black Harvard law student during your time on the Review board noted, “He’s willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have” (Drummond, 2008).  This aspect of credible leadership comes naturally to you; however it is the deep seated stalemate between the GOP and the DFL that has been a barrier to constructive compromise in Washington.

Your challenge going forward is to build genuine working relationships with every person involved in party negotiations.  Building these types of relationships takes a lot of time and energy.  You understand this from your time as a community organizer in Chicago.  In fact, you may spend your remaining four years building these relationships so that constructive compromises can be made immediately before leaving the presidency, or perhaps you will be laying the groundwork for the next president.  Regardless, your work now is in building a community of politicians committed to making changes for the common good based upon shared values and blind to party affiliation.  It may seem an insurmountable task, but if anyone can do it, you can.

Credible leaders build the capacity of their constituents so they can better help the leader address those insurmountable tasks.  They “provide the resources and other organizational supports that enable constituents to build their skills and put their abilities to constructive use.  Credible leaders foster an ownership mindset by making sure people have choices and the freedom to use their training, their judgment, and their experience to do what is right” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 131).  You are in the unique position of offering this to all Americans who need access to an affordable, quality education.  According to online parent resource Education.com, you have made education a priority as president.  You have supported the development of new federal assessment standards to replace the problematic No Child Left Behind, provided grant money to states for starting charter schools as a way to offer more school choice, made the federal student loan system more efficient in order to free up money for Pell grants, offered grant money to make preschool accessible to more people, increased funding for science and math education, and funded experiments in merit pay for teachers (Sorrentino, 2012).  You see the importance of training the next generation of our country’s leaders and back up that value with federal support.  I encourage more of the same from you in the upcoming years.  It is the best way to leave behind a legacy as a leader – empowering others to do what was not yours to do.

Serving a purpose is also important to building credibility in leadership.  This is done by putting the country’s guiding principles before anything else (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 152).  You spoke about this in your 2012 victory speech:

“By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.  But that common bond is where we must begin” (Obama, 2012).

A guiding principle of our nation is that we are united in innumerable ways, including a unity of diversity in opinion and worldview, and it is in working through our diversity that our country’s unity is perfected through consensus and compromise.  Living out this purpose on the political stage has not been an easy task; in fact it often seemed there was no hope for consensus and compromise in the midst of all the hard-line partisan rhetoric.  But you persistently tried, and from recent headlines it seems as if the long held stalemate may soon fall aside in the interest of addressing the deficit (Espo, 2012).  To keep the momentum of compromise going I recommend remaining open to constructive conversations and opposition because “credible leaders provide tangible evidence of their commitment and are visible models of the kinds of behaviors that are expected” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p.152).

The final, and what I consider most essential quality of credible leadership, is the ability to sustain hope.  Hope has been an abiding theme in your life and your presidency.  Through your childhood you held on to the hope of finding where you belonged.  During college you participated in political demonstrations in the hope of ending apartheid (Drummond, 2008).  You moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer in the hope of bringing just treatment to those living in impoverished neighborhoods. Your conversion experience into the Christian faith involved listening to a sermon entitled “The Audacity of Hope” surrounded by those you were called to serve.  You went on to write a book by the same title about your hopes and dreams for America’s future. “Hope” was your first presidential campaign slogan.  Hope has been a driving force in your life and you have not been afraid to embrace the power of hope when others have dismissed it as a soft and wistful emotion.  Your very presence as the President of these United States, a young black man from an unstable home, has brought hope to so many Americans.  Hope has made you a leader “with a positive, confident, gritty, can-do approach [Yes, we can!] who remain[s] passionate despite obstacles and setbacks” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 173).  And you will sustain hope in our nation by helping us all think positively about the future through your gift as an orator.  You are America’s cheerleader and that is exactly what we need in order to rise above our country’s difficulties.  Thank you for your gift of hope!

Servant Leadership & Politics

In conclusion, I want to share with you some thoughts on servant leadership and politics.  It has been a topic of conversation in our servant leadership classes on campus this semester.  Opinion is divided about whether or not it is possible to be a politician and a servant leader simultaneously.    Some think it impossible because of the large number of constituents a politician represents.  It is not possible to build interpersonal relationships with most of them, and that is a key component of servant leadership.  In today’s political climate, politicians have to answer to their parties and supporting lobbies more so than to the people they represent in order to be effective in their positions.

This makes it difficult to actually listen to constituents and act according to personal values.  The battleground of politics is an unfriendly place for the servant leader.

However I think someone who is firmly grounded in their role as servant leader can successfully navigate the world of politics, and I think you are a prime example.  Robert Greenleaf defines a servant leader as “servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf, 2008, p. 15).  You demonstrated this when you chose to work as a community organizer before heading to law school.  You continued to demonstrate this when you chose to work in civil rights and as an educator before initiating your political career.  Your political career in itself is an act of civil service.  Your service to others, and inspiring others to service, has always been a motivator for you.

Servant leadership emerges from you in other ways as well.  I have already written about your desire to connect with people on an interpersonal level and how that positively affects the rest of us who will never have the opportunity to meet you in person.  Of all the presidents I have known in my lifetime, you are by far the best storyteller of the lot.  You have the gift to connect, inspire, and reassure with your words, both orally and in written form.  Critics often claim this is all you have going for you, but when looking through the servant leader lens, the ability to uplift and motivate others to service through story is the key to successful leadership.  The servant leader does not have to do it all by himself, he does not want to because his primary purpose is to develop other servant leaders.  In your 2008 victory speech you expressed this desire:

“This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.  And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other” (Obama, 2012, November 4).

You clearly understand what it takes to be a servant leader and have tried your best to apply what you know in your role as president.  You may not have always been successful in your leadership – what servant leader has not failed in some way – but I observe you continually use your failures to grow and develop as a leader.  This is all we can legitimately ask of our leaders, and of ourselves.

You have spent the last four years laying the groundwork for your next four as president.  I have hope and confidence that you have built the relationships necessary to break down the walls of partisanship and build the bridges of cooperation and compromise in Washington, D.C.  Despite having never met you in person, you have managed to build credibility with me during your first term, and I am sure there are thousands of others like me.  I want you to know how very proud I am of being an American during the term of our first African American president.  I want you to know how very proud I am of you.

References

Adair, B. (2011, May 1). Politifact: In 2008, obama vowed to kill osama bin laden. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2011/may/01/obama-vowed-kill-osama-bin-laden/

Buechner, F. (2012). Goodreads: Frederick buechner quotes. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/19982.Frederick_Buechner

CNN. (2012, November). America’s choice 2012: Election center exit polls. Retrieved from http://blackboard.viterbo.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=/webapps/blackboard/execute/launcher?type=Course&id=_20429_1&url=

Drummond, T. (2008, September 4). Barack obama, harvard law review editor, march 19, 1990. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2008/09/barack-obama-ha.html

Espo, D. (2012, December 5). Obama and boehner discuss fiscal cliff by phone. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/obama-boehner-discuss-fiscal-cliff-phone-232751898.html

Gibson, J. (2011, April 5). A brief look at candidate obama’s 2008 campaign promises. Retrieved from http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2011/04/05/brief-look-candidate-obamas-2008-campaign-promises

Greenleaf, R. K. (2008). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Koh, H. (2001, September 13). What war powers does the president have?. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2001/09/what_war_powers_does_the_president_have.html

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Obama, B. H. (2004). Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Obama, B. H. (2008). The audacity of hope: Thoughts on reclaiming the american dream. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Obama, B. H. (2008, November 4).Presidentialrhetoric.com. Retrieved from http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/campaign2008/obama/11.04.08.html

Obama, B.H. (2012, November 7). Transcript of president obama’s election night speech. The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/us/politics/transcript-of-president-obamas-election-night-speech.html?pagewanted=all

Sorrentino, J. (2012). Barack obama on education. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Barack_Obama/

Weber, M. (1919). Politics as a vocation. Retrieved from http://blackboard.viterbo.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=/webapps/blackboard/execute/launcher?type=Course&id=_20429_1&url=

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