How to Work Hard and Accomplish Little
Jan 24, 2019
By Sander A. Flaum
When President Obama took office in January, 2009 he won early praise for taking on a variety of hot-button issues during his first days on the job. He ordered the closure of the American prison at Guantanamo Bay. He drew up new regulations for financial companies. He issued a climate change agenda and committed to healthcare reform; he proposed new rules for lobbying in Washington, D.C.; and he held six meetings with his economic team in his first days on the job.
The nation cheered this flurry of early action. I joined the chorus as well, commending Obama in a column that stressed the importance of a leader’s early victories within the first 100 days on the job.
But for all of that work—and with all the accolades that followed—what has the president actually accomplished? Guantanamo Bay remains open. Financial firms continue to post huge profits and pedal risky products. Lobbyists still enjoy coveted access to politicians. And although the economy does show signs of rebounding, 15 million Americans remain unemployed. And health care reform? That may be a while still.
I believe the president has fallen victim to a common trap for business leaders. In an effort to satisfy all of his constituents (and pacify his detractors), Obama has spent the last twelve months multitasking. Because he divided his focus among so many issues, he failed to deliver well on any of them.
Now, there is no shortage of research debunking the efficiency of multitasking in managing day-to-day tasks. (Most recently, a group of researchers at Western Washington University found that people simultaneously walking and talking on their cell phones are less likely to notice the somewhat startling presence of a clown riding on a unicycle). And for years, I have cautioned against the common practice of doing multiple activities in the workplace—like checking e-mail during a key meeting or text messaging while talking with employees—at the same time.
I suspect many executives share this problem. The only way to solve big, hairy, complicated problems in any organization, be it a corporation or a country, is simply to focus on one thing at a time. The president has come under fire for splitting his attention. “Ever since Mr. Obama took office, critics of his leadership style have accused him of tackling too many initiatives at once,” wrote John Harwood in the New York Times in December 2009, and as the president’s poll numbers have slipped, “that criticism has grown louder.”
The president might argue that he did not get to where he is by paying his critics much attention and that his split focus reflects the reality of a complex time. We are, after all, facing multiple serious problems: the high unemployment rate, a health care system in dire need of reform, environmental woes, and our country is still at war.
All of these issues are important. But none will get solved with only a fraction of the president’s attention. He must choose one problem and commit himself to it fully. For now, I would propose the right choice is the unemployment rate, the issue Americans say matters most to them. It is at the root of so many other troubles, including the health care reform dilemma.
Successful leaders sort out their priorities swiftly and remain committed to them. A new CEO might say, for example, that fixing the revenue stream should become the company’s top priority. At that juncture, everything else—wasteful spending, careless hiring, a misprint in the HR manual—takes a backseat to lifting the top line.
The president has done a good job of delegating some responsibilities, tapping nearly 30 “czars” to help manage weighty issues. But his personal attention remains split. (Even though he appointed an environmental czar, he still felt compelled to personally attend the climate talks in Copenhagen.)
Effective leaders must not only maintain a singular focus, they must project one, as well. Until the president learns how to zero in on his specific, top goal—creating jobs—and to effectively communicate the specifics of that commitment to the public—he will continue to struggle with his leadership agenda and lose favor with his supporters.
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