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President Obama, Syria, and the Leadership of Muddling Through

Muddling through is an important leadership strategy, for both political leaders and entrepreneurs.
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“He can’t make up his mind.”
“He doesn’t have a clear direction.”
“He keeps on waffling.”
 “He doesn’t take charge.”

These are among the common recent critiques we’ve heard about President Obama in the last week or so. They aren’t particularly new. They didn’t emerge whole cloth from the Syrian crisis.

The very same criticisms we hear about President Obama’s handling of Syria could be used for his management of health care reform.

But let’s take a step back. Let’s recast these criticisms. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye.

Adjustments, flexibility, and tactical reconsiderations are part of success, as long as you’re steady on your strategic intent, where you want to go, and how you want to get there. Any entrepreneur can tell you that. It’s crucial to hold true to your mission while being flexible with your tactics.

This is an especially difficult undertaking when you are trying to establish some degree of consensus. In your organization you may be the leader. You’re the entrepreneur, so you want to declare where the organization is going and how it is going to get there. You may want to lay out the direction, specify how you want to get there, and charge full steam ahead. Then you become a little pragmatic. You realize that in order to move ahead you may want to get the board on your side first. You may want some degree of consensus around your tactics, if not your strategic goal. You realize what all pragmatic leaders realize: You need to get people on your side.

That’s the challenge you face as an entrepreneur, and it’s a challenge President Obama has faced throughout his administration. The jury is still out as to whether or not he has mastered this challenge.

But it’s a given that leaders often attempt to build consensus by muddling through and taking things one step at a time. Leadership requires the capacity to make adjustments and to learn from each incremental step as you move toward a specified goal.

In a classic article published in 1959, Charles Lindblom pointed out that while it’s good to have an overall strategy, most policy is created through incremental adjustments as more information is collected and more ideas are digested. This is what muddling through is all about. It is not a pejorative term. It is the heart of pragmatic leadership.

President Obama hasn’t shifted his desire to prevent the future use of chemical weapons, but as we’ve seen in the last few days, he’s shifted the tactics he’s considering to achieve this goal. He’s taking one step at a time, as he gathers more information and builds consensus.

While we want our leaders to lay out specific, exact plans, they can’t always do it. Leaders, like children trying to climb a tree, can’t always plan a route to get to the top. They have to go one branch at a time, one step at a time. As we progress to the top, we have to test each branch’s ability to hold our weight, and its capacity to let us push forward.

Leadership is not simply laying out a plan and following it. It’s about our capacity to look to the top of the tree and climb it carefully, making adjustments as we step from one branch to another. Whether President Obama has mastered the art and science of muddling through or whether he’s making one uncalculated adjustment after another is open to debate. But muddling through is an important leadership skill, and it appears to be a leadership skill the President relies upon.

Unfortunately, while muddling through is at the heart of pragmatic leadership, it’s often seen as indecision. It’s only with the benefit of historical hindsight that we will be able to judge whether President Obama was a pragmatic leader or an indecisive one.

IMAGE: borman818 / Flickr.com
Last updated: Sep 11, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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