From the start his campaign, Barack Obama’s outlook on visionary leadership has already been deemed appealing but precarious. At the height of the Obama and Hilary Clinton Campaign, Obama had already drawn his distinct views on how to govern a nation. He envisioned himself as a president who assumes the role of the chief executive of the country whose focus is to bestow foresight, judgment, and motivation in leadership. Obama did not plan to directly manage the agencies under him but rather delegate those tasks. The head of the agency is therefore hold accountable for whatever turns out of his agency. (O’Toole, 2008)
Obama’s vision reflected a Reaganesque organizational insouciance. Nonetheless, Obama exercised well-studied philosophy of leadership. His approach is suggestive of his ability to carry out the changes that the people are looking for. Obama articulates theories of leadership, a very popular subject of research to date. In this paper, we describe three theories of leadership (trait theory, skill theory, and situational theory) and how it applies to Obama. We will also examine which of these three leadership theories best exemplified Obama’s style of leadership.
Trait Theory of Leadership
The trait approach was among the first systematic attempt to analyze leadership. However, the term “trait” itself can be ambiguous as it may refer to different kinds of personality, mood, or abilities. It may also refer both to the physical and demographic characteristics of an individual (Zaccaro et al, 2004). But if pertaining to a leader, Zaccaro et al. (2004) describes traits as ‘relatively stable and coherent integrations of personal characteristics that foster a consistent pattern of leadership performance across a variety of group and organizational situations’. These attributes indicate an array of individual distinctions, including motives, abilities, etc.
In the early 1900’s, traits of leaders were analyzed to establish what made selected people remarkable leaders. These studies centered on pinpointing the inherent attributes of prominent leaders. It was hypothesized that already possess these traits from the moment they are born and so only “great” people have them. Thu, during the early 20th century, studies were focused on identifying the specific traits that draw the line between leader and followers (Northouse, 2007).
It is therefore not surprising that there are many theories about leadership traits for leadership is considered a challenging task with heavy responsibilities. It is supposed that these traits give people with the making of a leader to carry out the essential feats required for them to become successful. This notion on leadership brought about researchers to compile a list of traits and associated abilities correlated with leadership.
Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) identify six traits that differentiate leaders and non-leaders:
Drive – This trait pertain to the ability of a leader to exert high level of effort. He should have the proper achievement, ambition, tenacity, energy and initiate.
Leadership Motivation – A leader must be willing to take the responsibility and he must be must the capacity to influence other people.
Honesty/Integrity – These values is the baseline of successful relationship between a leader and a follower. Without these, leadership is unstable.
Self-confidence – Confidence enables a leader to execute difficult decisions and earn the trust of his followers.
Cognitive Ability – A leader must have has superior intellectual capacity that will enable him to analyze numerous situations, and strategize solutions to problems.
Knowledge of Business – A good understanding of business enables a leader to make well-reasoned decisions and be aware of their implications.
According to Benis (1994), a leader may come in all sizes, gender, and shape. What matter he or she had the proper mix of traits what will make him a good leader. These traits include a guiding vision where a leader must focus his strength. A leader must also have the passion to commit to an action, the integrity that will be the foundation of trust, and the ability to take risk and tackle the unknown.
Barack Obama easily fits the description of a leader from the trait perspective. A study done by College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota on the personality profile of Obama revealed that he is ambitious and confident. Obama is also accommodating, congenial, and conscientious to a certain degree. These combination of traits classifies Obama’s personality as “confident conciliator” .
Leaders with this type of personality, despite being self-assured and ambitious are also generally considerate and compassionate. They have the charm and ability for settling disputes and prefer mediation over coercion as the means for settling conflicts.
Such studies present a pragmatically-based framework for predicting Obama’s performance as the leader of the country. Apart from the traits mentioned above, Obama is also anticipated to exhibit the following traits:
Give more importance to tasks than relationship
Preference to gather information from different sources rather than his officials alone
When dealing with the Congress, he may try to avoid conflict by remaining above the fray
Personally defend his policies rather than rely his on his staff to speak for him.
As expected, Obama behaved in those ways. From the moment he started his campaign, he has been constantly scrutinized for his every action. Nonetheless, his win was not because of his ability to play the game of politics effectively but because he has effectively communicated his vision.
Obama has been able to uphold the aura and behavior of a leader throughout his campaign and showed excellent examples on how leadership should be executed. One of the most important determinants of his success was Obama’s ability to ardently express his vision which he effectively aligned with the people’s vision. At time of the presidential campaign, many Americans were dissatisfied with the way America was governed and many people were losing hope as a result of the global financial crisis. Obama was able to touch this aspect in his vision by offering hope and promising to restore good leadership in the country.
Situational Theory of Leadership
Another approach in studying leadership is the situational approach. The basic assumption of this approach is that a situation can affect the type of leadership demanded. Th father of the situational approach is Hersey and Blanchard and this was based on Reddin’s 3-D management style theory.
In this milieu, Sills (1991) defines situation as a ‘set of values and attitudes with which the individual or group has to deal in a process of activity and with regard to which this activity is planned and its results appreciated. Every concrete activity is the solution of a situation.’ It may consist of intricate affair. According to Sills (1991), a situation has five elements:
the structure of interpersonal relationships within the group;
the characteristics of the group as a whole;
the characteristics of the group’s environment from which members come;
physical constraints on the group; and
the perceptual representation, within the group and among its members, of these elements and the “attitudes and values engendered by them”
Situational factors thus restrain a leader to fit his style of leadership to a current situation. This has a directive and supportive effect. A leader who takes into account situational influences comprehends that the capabilities of a group member is not fixed, therefore, the leader’s directive and supportive pursuits should also vary with the situation (Northouse, 2007). Over the years, there have already been several revisions of the original statements of he situational approach but until now it remains to be an important elements of trainings for organizational leadership and development.
The situational theory typifies leadership into four types:
S1 – high directive-low supportive
S2 – high directive-high supportive
S3 – low directive-high supportive
S4 – low directive-low supportive.
Hersey and Blanchard maintain that a leader’s style, whether he is the type that delegates or participates, differs depending on the willingness of his followers to carry out that task assigned (McCaffery, 2004). The situational leadership (SLII) model is used to explain how each of the four styles applies relates to followers who work at varying stages of development: (1)D1 – low in competence and high in commitment, (2) D2 – moderately competent and low in commitment , (3) D3 – moderately competent but lacking commitment , and (4) D4 – great deal of competence and a high degree of commitment. To be an effective, the leader must recognize the level of his followers for a given task and execute the type of leadership that is suitable to the situation.
Among the strengths of the situational approach is it is simple to comprehend and its applicability to in various situations. It is also a tested method for training leaders due to its prescriptive nature and because it illustrates how a leader must act in order to become successful. The situational approach also allows room for flexibility It does not pinpoint a particular type of leadership to be most effective but rather it shows that several styles may be required depending on the needs of a situation.
The setback of this approach is the claims that are the lack of research that can fully support the claims made by the approach. The terms of movement of a subordinate from on level of development to another are not also well-defines. The situational approach does not also guide a leader on how the model can used be group settings.
Tackling Obama’s leadership in terms of the situational approach is a lot more difficult than tackling him in terms of trait or skills approach. This is because there is need to consider already not only the leader but also the situations he have been into and how he responded to them. Obama has been often criticized for his poor response to situations and for his lack for involvement. Some have said that he is expert at delivering moving speeches but once pressed for solutions to a conflict, he delegates the job to other people.
From the moment Obama took on the presidency, he has faced many critical issues which included the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the messy foreign policies, frail international relations, escalating health care problems, and an economy which is already on the brink of collapsing. Obama has vocally stated his preference of delegating tasks rather directly managing them (O’Toole, 2008). However, he was able to fit his style of leadership to the needs of the situation. Apart from delegating people, he has also empowered them. By doing so, Obama has played an important role in helping his subordinates reach their highest levels of professional development. Obama has constantly stressed the importance of not only hiring the most qualified people but also empowering them. With this strategy in mind, Obama was able to rise from simply being a manager to a leader. He has set the distinction of a leader who can influence his people from manager who only manages and maintains situations.
Skills Theory of Leadership
The third theory leadership being examined is the leadership skills approach. While the trait approach looks into the personality of leader, situational approach in the behavior or the ability of a leader to adjust to a situation, the skill approach looks into the knowledge and capabilities of a leader. A leader may learn several skills that he will make him a great one. The skill and trait approach has different focus but both centers on the leader as the main purpose.
Investigators have long studied leadership skills. There are two recognized models. The first model wad developed by Robert Katz in 1955. The second one is developed by more recently (2000) by Michael Mumford and his colleagues. The two models compliments each other as they offer differing views on leadership based on the skills perspective.
Kats laid down three skills that a leader must have: technical skills, human skills, and conceptual skills. According to him, these skills are distinct from the traits of a leader. A leader will always be characterized by his traits, but will be his skills that will determine his accomplishments. A technical skill refers to knowledge and proficiency on a certain activity. An example of which is the ability to use programming languages.
Human skills pertain to the ability mingle with people. It is quite different from technical skills which are about working with objects. Human skills are very important in building relationship and effective communication with people. The third one, conceptual skills, pertains to the ability of a leader to conceptualize ideas. These skills will allow to him to comprehend and decide which actions are necessary when faced with a particular situation.
Munford et al. developed a new model and they proposed that a leader must have these five skills: individual attribute, competencies, leadership outcomes, career experiences, and environmental influences. This model is better known as the capacity model as it looks into the correlation of a leader’s knowledge and abilities, and his performance. Abilities are taken as an aspect that can be significantly improved through education and experience.
Individual attributes has four components: (1) general cognitive ability (intelligence), (2) crystallized cognitive ability (acquired intelligence through experience), (3) motivation (willingness to lead), and (4) personality. Competencies include problem-solving skills, social judgment skills and knowledge and are at the heart of the skills model.
The results of a good leadership are effectively problem solving and performance. This is achieved by the ability to craft solutions which are logical and does not dwell on on-hand information alone. A leader’s performance is an implication of the extent by which he was able to do his duty.
Experience has also a great effect on the competency of a leader. According to the capability model, the experienced gained by a leader in the course of his carreer affects his knowledge of solving complicated problems. Mumforet et al recognizes that leaders can be improved by challenging tasks and trainings.
The strength of the skill approach is it is the only approach that concretized the process of leadership based skills. By doing so, it makes leadership more open to everyone as it offers a larger view of leadership by incorporating a wide array of components such as problem-solving skills and social judgment skills. The skills approach also defines a structure that is in line leadership education programs (Northouse, 2007).
Barack Obama is well known for his skills even before he became the president of the Unites States of America. He obtained his law degree from the Havard University and was awarded the honor Juris Doctor magna cum laude. Before entering politics, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for eight year. He has also practiced as a civil rights lawyer. This makes him well-versed with the legislations of the country. While working as a professor and a lawyer, Obama has penned a book. He also initiated and participated in a lot of programs. One of these programs is Illinois’ Project Vote, a drive which has been successful in registering almost 400,000 African Americans in the state.
Obama has served as state senator from 1997 to 2004. As a state senator, he has supported several bills on the reformation of health care and ethics laws. He also supported a bill which increases the tax-credits of lo-income workers. He has also done significant job on the issue of racism by passing the law to monitor racial profiling.
In summary, Obama wan not pitted to US Presidency in haste. He may be young but he has skills required of a leader. Obama’s human skills are one his most admired skills. His ability to effectively communicate his vision is partly due to his good public relation. He has a message and he has the means to effectively communicate it. Obama has also been able to developed consistency in his human skills that his success in influencing others is partly attributed to it.
We have discussed in theories of leadership using style, situational, and skill approach and applied them in analyzing the leadership of a president leader, Barack Obama.
The trait approach places attention on the leader alone without taking into account his followers and situations. The approach assumes that a leader’s traits are determines the success of the leadership process. It can be safely said therefore that a person that has the traits of great leader is the one with the best potential to lead.
The situation approach argues that leadership not a fixed aspect but rather a variable one depending on a situation. The type of leadership required varies from one situation another. An effective leader has the ability to adjust his style of leadership depending on the needs of a dilatation on the level of development of his followers.
The skills approach, just as the trait approach, places its attention to the leader. This approach basically says that there are certain that leaders must possess or develop in order to carry out his job effectively. The skills that a leader must possess are typified in into several types including proficiency in certain areas, effective communication and relationship skills, and ability to conceptualize, analyze situations, and craft strategies.
Of the three leadership theories discussed, the most that applies to Obama’s style of leadership are the trait and skill approach. These are theories are easier to assess as they focus on the leader alone. Analyzing Obama in terms of the situational approach calls for a more detailed study as it needs careful examination of Obama’s responses into various situations in his presidential career. Of the two applicable approaches, the trait approach best applies to Obama. Consider his traits alone, he is a qualified leader. He has the drive and motivation to carry out his vision and he has the effective means of translating that vision into actions. Obama also has the confidence and intellectual capacity required of a leader for him to be successful.