Like a boss: Obama approaches transition as a CEO and mentor
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President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Chance the Rapper works as Lyft driver to raise money for Chicago schools Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising MORE is traveling a far more benevolent path to the presidency of Donald J. Trump than his fellow Democrats. The president’s pubic mood is one marked by grace and acceptance, while his followers promise to follow Dylan Thomas’ admonition to “not go gentle into that good night.”

Considering the vitriol leading up to the November election, the transition between Obama and Trump promised to be chilly at best and downright nasty at worst. After all Trump had spent much of the last eight years raising the “birther” question to discredit Obama’s presidency, while Obama had ricocheted between condescension and incredulity about Trump’s presidential bid.

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Certainly other presidents have been gracious to their predecessors in leaving office, such as George H.W. Bush who left a generous and patriotic note for a newly inaugurated Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCybersecurity for national defense: How many 'wake-up calls' does it take? Who's in control alters our opinion of how things are Obama adviser jabs Hillary Clinton over Monica Lewinsky comments MORE. And George W. Bush was particularly accommodating to President Obama, and maintained that decorum his entire presidency.

The fact that early days have been restrained, dignified and even forgiving may have more to do with the quality of Obama’s leadership than history. Like many a good chief executive officer, Obama appears to have recognized that succession is not about being right but about being practical.

Business executives have long understood that carefully calibrated successions are the hallmark of great leaders. Clearing the way for the next CEO or board chairman is a sign of a healthy and forward-looking leadership team that has the company’s best interest at heart.

Eli Lilly earned a reputation for the well-executed succession, with no drama and a great emphasis on planning. When Dave Ricks was tapped to replace John Lechleiter as CEO, the official handoff in 2016 was the culmination of months of planning and work. Lechleiter knew a peaceful transfer was good for the company because he had experienced it himself in his own transition, as had the nine CEOs before him.

And Intel ranks high in terms of transitions, especially its shift in 2004 from CEO Craig Barnett to then-Chief Operating Officer Paul Otellini, who came to the post without the technical expertise of his predecessor or his mentor Andy Grove, Intel’s legendary CEO. Otellini spent months cramming for the job, with more than 50 tutorials about the complexities of the business and the technology.

What makes Obama’s case more unusual than his predecessors’ or a Fortune 500 CEO’s is that the president has spent the last four months belittling Trump and his candidacy, and just days before the election had called Trump unfit for the office. 

Despite the history, Obama may feel compelled — and expected — to rescue Trump from himself as the president-elect plots his transition. The Wall Street Journal reported that after meeting with Trump, “the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do.”

Obama has seemed to gently acquiesce to the president-elect, both in private and in public, much like retiring CEOs might do for their successors.. Obama even played defense for Trump during a recent trip that found him consoling European leaders and predicting Trump would support critical alliances. 

Of course there are moments when Obama seems to be more like a chastising older brother than presidential equal. “What I said to him was, what may work in generating enthusiasm or passion during elections may be different from what will work in terms of unifying the country and gaining the trust of those who didn’t support him,” Obama said in Germany a week after the election.

One of the dangers is that Trump and his team won’t listen to Obama. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, suggested that incoming presidents are often guilty of knowing everything: “The problem often is that the people coming in are somewhat arrogant, they’re running on adrenaline, they’ve done in an almost impossible thing of winning the presidency, and often they’re not willing to listen to the people going out.”

What Trump is finding out now is that leadership matters—something he should know as a CEO, and something Obama has learned over the last eight years. “If you’re not serious about the job, you probably won’t be there very long,” the president said. “He will see fairly quickly, the demands and responsibilities of a U.S. president are not ones that you can treat casually. That in a big, complex, diverse country, the only way you can be successful is by listening, reaching out and working with a wide variety of people.”

James Bailey is a Hochberg Professorial Fellow of Leadership Development, and Professor of Management at The George Washington University School of Business. Sarah Kellogg is a writer living in Washington, D.C. who writes about the intersection of the law, leadership and public affairs.


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