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Obama's CEO Challenge
David Morey -- Dedicated to Helping Companies Win David Morey -- Dedicated to Helping Companies Win
Washington , DC
Thursday, April 28, 2011

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America is in trouble. How to fix it? For the last 25 years, my company, Core Strategy Group, has borrowed and applied the best insurgent leadership lessons to great success for our business clients. Today, this kind of insurgent CEO approach for President Obama is critically important to our nation's future.

This week, a business leader close to President Obama said: "The U.S. Presidency is more difficult than the job of any CEO….imagine you're CEO of an organization where half your executive team is working against you, where your board of directors is a public deeply divided, where any word you say can tumble markets or kill soldiers and where your own in-box is more difficult than any of your predecessors." Welcome to the Obama Presidency.

How to succeed? One answer—draw lessons from the great CEOs of history: Leadership lesson #1: Play Offense:

Our first corporate client, Apple founder Steven Jobs, taught us there are fundamental differences in the way incumbents and insurgents lead:

• Incumbents tend to be bureaucratic, hierarchical, formal, slow and very reluctant to accept change.

• Insurgents tend to be informal, flat and fast, informal and welcoming change as opportunity.

President Obama must lead as an insurgent CEO. What has not been working for him? It is the role of last-in-the-chain problem solver. President Obama is perceived as waiting at his desk for the most insoluble problems to arrive….and then trying to shape a solution. This focuses only on reaction. This puts him in a passive and non-leadership role—not a great image for a U.S. President. As Steven Covey argues: It forces you to focus on the 80 percent of "to-dos" that are time-sensitive, but not necessarily strategically important for the future.

How to win: President Obama must play offense and re-shape the debate on the 20 percent of problems that, in Covey's terms, are both critically time-sensitive and strategically important—that literally will shape America's future. For great CEOs, it's critical to re-shape a decision before it's made—in other words, creating your own in-box as much as possible in a world of weekly crises. This way you reduce surprises, avoid "no-win" choices and control the leadership agenda.

A good example of President Obama playing offense is his debt failsafe recommendation. The idea is drawn from commissions such as the Peterson-Pew Report. It is an approach to control your own budget system; and instilling this kind of automatic cost over-run procedure is a great way to play offense and shape decisions before they shape you. Our CEO of America, President Obama, must do more of this every day.

Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read: "The buck stops here." Barack Obama needs a sign on his desk that says: "The American economy starts here!"

Leadership lesson #2: Stop doing stupid things:

One of the first things we do in working with top CEOs is a process we call "Prune and Grow"—quickly stopping the non-priorities or what is not working. Here is a starting list for America:

• Stop defining health care reform as greater participant inclusiveness and move to dramatic cost cutting. At current rates, by 2030, we will have twice the number of people participating in Social Security and Medicare, and, adding Medicaid, 60 percent of the U.S. economy will be spent in these areas.

• Stop arguing about tax cuts or tax increases—and focus on tax REFORM. As the Simpson-Bowles Commission argues, create a fairer, broader and simpler tax system.

• Stop the extension of the Bush tax cuts—simply let the Bush tax cuts expire after next year to reduce U.S. debt by 75% over the following decade.

• Stop spending $2 billion a week on an Afghanistan war with no clear strategic objective or end game.

• Stop cutting investments in strategic priorities such as education and infrastructure. U.S. investments in such areas as computers, GPS and the Internet have paid off exponentially. Now is the right time to invest in bio-science, technology and information systems.

President Obama must Prune and Grow:

• STOP AND CUT the stupid things we continue to do.

• INVEST IN GROWTH and the kind of innovation that made the U.S. great from its beginning.

Leadership Lesson #3: Build a strategic blueprint for America.

Our client's Chairman, Indra Nooyi, said: It's time for America to do what has really never been done—form a 50-year blueprint for what we must be and do as a nation. A great CEO knows strategy must drive tactics—and we must build a strategy to re-focus, re-invest and re-energize America.

The job of America's President is in every dimension more complex and challenging than the job of CEO. Borrowing the leadership lessons of history's best and insurgent CEOs will help President Obama lead our nation. And playing more offense, utilizing a Prune and Grow approach and building a strategic blueprint can help America lead greatly into the 21st Century.

David Morey is an award-winning author of The Underdog Advantage and Vice Chairman of Core Strategy Group. An expert in global business, he led the CFR Task Force on Public Diplomacy and advised the 2008 Obama campaign on strategy.

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David Morey
Vice Chairman
Core Strategy Group
Washington, DC
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