Presidential Conflict Avoidance

October 18th, 2012

One of the newer and truer maxims in leadership coaching circles is that a leader’s weaknesses come from overuse of their strengths. Now that the presidential campaign is in full swing, President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses are more visible than ever. To me, his most visible strength is his ability to mediate and bridge differences, and his accompanying weakness is an avoidance of confrontation.

We have learned about his family background, as a black child raised by a white mother and white grandparents, about his coming to his ethnic awareness at Occidental College in LA, and about his political emergence as the mediator between the liberals and conservatives at the Harvard Law Review. He further cultivated this strength as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side, working with the Chicago political machine on behalf of the poor, working class and mostly African-American residents of his neighborhood. He became known as a bridge builder between often opposing forces, maintaining good relationships with both sides.

He rarely showed anger or directly confronted the power structure. It is said that this reputation made him quite acceptable and liked by the white voters. In 2008, his campaign even labeled him as a “post-partisan” leader.

Like most of us he relied heavily on this strength, avoiding its flip side, confrontation. In the first debate with John McCain he did not respond to McCain’s attacks. Even in office when the Republican leadership proclaimed that their first priority was to make him a one-term president, he persisted in reaching out to them. Most recently in his first debate with Governor Romney he stood uncomfortably silent as Romney made attack after attack. In these debates, I kept on wishing for him to fight back and defend himself. But he continued his awkward silence—I guess hoping for an opportunity to demonstrate his post-partisanship. After harsh media and public criticism for his recent performance, I assume he is getting coached and learning to develop his ability to confront and verbally defend himself.

Mr. Obama’s situation is not uncommon to leaders in other organizations. Over the past few years, I’ve worked with at least three leaders who rose to senior positions on their ability to mediate and prevent conflict, only to find themselves faced with skilled challengers eager to weaken this leader’s power or take their resources. Like President Obama, these leaders had spent their lives as “nice and smart people” who avoided confrontation. And like the president, they came to a point in their lives when they could no longer avoid confrontation. Through their coaching programs these leaders learned how to confront attackers and defend themselves. Along with learning the verbal and non-verbal skills of confronting, they connected with their own will and their anger toward people who played by different rules.

Expressing anger and self-defense are not easy skills to learn, especially after a lifetime avoiding them. These leaders worked hard in some challenging coaching sessions as they learned, step-by-step how to address this aspect of human relationships. I’m happy to say that after self-reflection and practice, all of them learned to confront and defend. I can only hope that Mr. Obama learns similar skills by his next debate.

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