Quo Vadis, President Obama?
“How the trailblazer of 2008 became the stymied president of 2010,” was the headline on Newsweek’s cover on Feb. 1.
I believe I have an explanation, and it has a lot to do with my lifecycle theory of organizations. (For more information on lifecycles, please read my book Managing Corporate Lifecycles, Adizes Institute Publications, 2004.)
In the 1930s, I suggest, the United States was in the Adolescent stage of its lifecycle. A combination of factors, from Keynesian economics to the stock market crash in 1929, had legitimized government intervention (the New Deal). Those changes caused the (A) role to grow, making possible the transition to Prime in the 1950s.
It was a healthy transition. The growing (A) did not stifle the (E)ntrepreneurial spirit, because the market economy was still very vibrant, the size of the market was vast enough for entrepreneurial maneuvering, and the relative independence of the States kept the Federal government power somewhat in check. Furthermore, the principles and practice of government intervention were still, metaphorically, in diapers. Finally, the electorate’s continual lurching from Republican to Democratic administrations and back again temporarily retarded the rapid calcification of (A).
Nevertheless, (A) grew. Government expenditures as a percentage of the GNP were growing exponentially, and regulatory legislation began to eat up the majority of the Legislature’s time and effort.
It was inevitable; the rate of change continually accelerated requiring government regulation.
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, this growing role of government was functional, enabling the system to cross from Adolescence into Prime. From that point on, however, the growing (A) caused the system to start aging.
The aging process was not linear. Technology innovation – first the computer revolution, then the internet explosion, and now the green initiatives – kept (E)ntrepreneurship alive and kicking. Nevertheless, (A) grew steadily, and it had to, because of the rate of change.
As the system continued to age, it became less and less manageable. Its chief executive officer, the President, increasingly lost control.
How could the President lose control just when government was becoming a behemoth?
This reminds me of an experience I had years ago. I was scheduled to deliver an afternoon lecture at a management conference at a hotel retreat. The retreat had horses for hire, so I decided to rent a horse that morning.
It did not take me too long to realize that the horse had been doing this job for a very long time. It knew the path by heart and could tell when the hour was up without reading a watch. I tried to make it gallop up the hill. It went two steps off the path and stopped; then it returned to the path.
I tried to make it gallop down the hill. (Please notice that I was already compromising.) Still, no willingness to cooperate. This time the horse directed its ears forward as if to warn me: “Just get on that path and don’t make waves.”
Who was in control, the horse or me?
For the rest of the hour I acted like I was in control, but I let that darn horse take me back to the barn on the path it knew perfectly well.
That is how Presidents probably feel when they finally get elected. Running for the Presidency, they have a vision, they have a plan and a desire to make change, but once they get into the White House, once they get “the power,” the situation is different. Now they have to make the government function and the legislature cooperate. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and the congress are used to doing things a certain way. Changing how they work and how they cooperate – if they cooperate at all – takes more than just wishing.
The United States as a system is aging. It is increasingly becoming “HQ heavy,” and government expenditures as a percentage of GNP are skyrocketing.
Where is the United States on the lifecycle now? Beyond Stable, starting to decline toward Aristocracy, with some early signs of “Salem City,” the Recrimination stage.
When a system is in the first stages of aging, what it needs is (E) and (I), change and the promise of integration – and that is what Obama was “selling” that the voters bought. That is what gave him the image of a trailblazer. He got elected by projecting that he would do what was necessary to turn the aging system around and pull it out of its decline.
In other words, Obama got elected by promising to gallop uphill. But, having very limited political experience, he did not realize how difficult it is to make an aging horse gallop. He took too much on himself: health care reform on top of having to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran as well as resolving the credit crisis, which was sinking the economy. It was too much to do, and he promised too much.
His solutions however all tended to increase the role of government – which meant more (A), further acceleration into aging. And when that happens, people expect (P), results, which he could not deliver.
The result is that his popularity is sinking rapidly in the polls – to the point where he may soon be regarded as a lame duck President – not in the last year of his presidency but already in his second year.
I suggest to you that this was all predictable. The United States is in decline, in the aging stages of its lifecycle, approaching the Recrimination or Salem City stage. And what happens in Salem City in Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible? A witch-hunt. Instead of addressing their systemic problems, people start to look for villains, believing that if they sacrifice their leaders (or refuse to re-elect them), a new leader will be able to do what it takes.
But what is needed is not a new rider but a new horse. We need to change the system. Changing Presidents does not make the necessary difference.
No elected president, I suggest to you, will look good in polls from now on. The polls gauging the popularity of a President are going to look worse and worse, and there will be earlier calls for his or her impeachment. Why? Because we are at the stage of the lifecycle where our desperate impulse is to sacrifice our leaders no matter what they do.
And if my analysis is right, what do we need to do?
We need to re-engineer the system.
I am not talking about more or less government – but something different: a new, modern capitalist system, based on cooperation between management and workers; a new way to control management, not only by absent stockholders but also by working insiders: the employees.
And that is nothing short of a revolution.
Hopefully, it will be a peaceful revolution. The grass-roots Tea Party movement, which recently sprang up in opposition to Obama’s plans, chose its name for the Boston Tea Party, an act of defiance against Great Britain that began the American Revolution. Perhaps subconsciously, we are preparing ourselves for the major change that needs to happen.
But in order to re-engineer the system, we will need to slaughter some sacred cows that are blocking our ability to advance. We are still stuck with the religion of adversarial relations – unions against management, managers against each other –that penetrates organizational dynamics.
As we become increasingly interdependent, we need to become increasingly collaborative. As of now, we are interdependent but competitive. And that needs to change. But that cannot happen without a major break with the existing system. The credit crisis, as dire as that was, may just have been an early indicator of things to come.
President Obama is not a bad President. He simply was elected at a time when no President could survive the frustrations of the populace, the difficulty of making changes within the enormous bureaucracy that he heads, and the stain of dirty political maneuvers that politicians routinely use to remain in power.
He did not create the river, but he sure is getting wet swimming in it.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes