Management Secrets Of Barack Obama

Why is there not
In the land of Obama
only more than
A hint of drama?

Barack Obama's presidential campaign is a sight to behold for many reasons, but among the least appreciated is its allergy to the disunity and spatting that generally convulses even the most successful of endeavors.

Obama, who never managed so much as a newsstand, has turned out to be a fairly remarkable leader of a what's becoming a billion dollar enterprise.

Not that there haven't been disputes; not that there haven't been rollicking disagreements about strategy and message and tactics; not that people haven't been fired; not that personalities haven't clashed; some high-ranking Obama advisers really embraced the concept of multiple town hall meetings with John McCain while others were wary; after some half-hearted stabs at negotiation, the idea kicked the bucket. (By the way: kicking the bucket is not a term of endearment for vegans; a dollar to the person who can explain why.)

So what principles are responsible for the discipline, the coherence and relational tightness of the campaign? The question is relevant because they tell us something about how Obama might set up his White House, and the principle of function following form applies.

1. A challenging, clearly-defined mission.

Win the Democratic nomination. Ok, that's obvious. But in November of 2006, Obama had a handful of wealthy Jewish donors from Chicago ready to raise money, a few Democratic strategy types who stood ready to put a campaign together, and not much of anything else. The challenge was immense, and the folks who joined the Obama campaign early on -- this was when Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner -- came aboard because they believed in Obama the challenge, not because they expected glory or material rewards. Salaries weren't competitive with the Clinton campaign's either. Obama attracted a large number of ideological Democrats who either had reason to dislike the Clintonian influence over the party or who believed that Obama stood at the crossroads between history and hope.

2. Clear lines of authority, with budget power appropriately vested in the campaign manager.

David Plouffe was named campaign manager and given the portfolio of essentially building an airplane as it was speeding down the runway. Plouffe's authority did not derive from his personal relationship with Barack Obama; indeed, Plouffe really didn't interact much with Obama before the campaign. Instead, it derived from the decisions he made that Obama later ratified. A corollary: Obama's best friend, Marty Nesbitt, was named campaign treasurer. That meant that Nesbitt, too, had oversight functions about spending and could make sure that Obama's personal values were reflected in the decisions made by the campaign.

David Axelrod would handle strategy, always a kind of messy and intrusive portfolio, but the strategy was pretty clear from the start: this is a change election, and Obama's the change agent.

Robert Gibbs would handle the press; and handle is a good word, because Obama's relationship with the press has been fascinating as it has evolved.

Their subordinates were generally given tasks and clear lines of authority.

3. The tone from the top.

Much has been written about Plouffe's preternatural unflappability, but his attitude helps confirm a basic principle of psychology: when the boss is freaked, employees get freaked. When the boss is calm, employees tend to remain calm.

But there's Obama's tone, too. Generally happy. "No drama." That's made clear to new employees, who feel the presence of the dictum as they go about their work. Drama disappoints Obama. No one wants to disappoint Obama. So -- if there are conflicts -- staffers are advised to work them out by themselves. A social cuing effect helps to cement the bond here; employees see that everyone else is getting along and feel pressure to get along, too.

4. Protecting Obama's public image at all costs

This one's also obvious, but it has been a priority from day one. The type of people drawn to the campaign are the type of people who would be angry at themselves if they somehow distorted the carefully crafted image that Obama and guru Gibbs et. al. had worked to create.

5. The personality cult

Not meant as an insult or a reference to messianic fervor; I mean more a reflection of Obama's personality. Obama is an occasionally fastidious perfectionist. He expects a high level of professional integrity from his staff; he expects a higher level of execution. When things go wrong, Obama doesn't just leave the aftermath to his subordinates, he actively helps to clean it up.

6. Decisions made quickly and decisively.

Occasionally, Obama temporizes. But just as often, he endorses quick, clear decision-making.

7. The freedom to do things differently.

Let the Clintons run their campaign the traditional way. Obama had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and so his campaign could experiment; they were trying to accomplish something that no challenger had every before accomplished, so they could afford to try new things, to throw out the old rulebooks, to ignore established habits of mind, and take some risks.