Obama's Attention Deficit Disorder
If you don’t prioritize your presidency, someone else will.
By GREG MCKEOWN
January 07, 2014
President Obama has a problem: One day he’s talking about economic inequality, the next day school reform, or immigration reform, or something else entirely. At a time when the political system is so gridlocked, it seems crazy to flit from issue to issue in this way—and it’s no way to run a parade, either.
This presidential attention deficit disorder is bad politics because it’s bound to result in disappointment: There’s no way Obama, or his chief of staff Denis McDonough, for that matter, can juggle all of these priorities successfully. And if you look at his poll numbers, it seems the American people think so too.
I’m not trying to make a partisan point here. This is a problem I see routinely with the leaders I advise in Silicon Valley. It is a problem many of us feel on a daily basis, whether we’re the high-flying CEO of a Fortune 500 company or just a regular working stiff trying to make ends meet. So here are my suggestions for how Obama can stop sweating the distractions and start focusing on what’s most essential.
First, ask, “If we only get one thing done in 2014, what should it be?” In Obama’s reelection video, “The Road We’ve Travelled,” his team sought to put his first term in the most positive light possible, in the same spirit as Bill Clinton’s “A Man from Hope” or Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America.” In it, Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recalls asking Obama which of all of the problems they should take on and Obama said, “All of them!” Emanuel saw this as an evidence of inspiring leadership. Me, not so much. When leaders believe they can take on every problem, they are ignoring the ruthless reality of tradeoffs. Not even the most powerful person in the world can escape this principle: When you try to make everything a priority, nothing will be.
As I write in my new book, Essentialism, the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People—and presidents—routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of his experience where the chief executive often talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.”
I am not suggesting for one moment that this is easy. To define the priority is hard. It takes debate, disagreement and really tough conversations—and that’s just within a leader’s inner circle. Still, it goes to the very essence of leadership. Obama needs to debate and answer this question, “If we only get one thing done in 2014, what should it be?”
I won’t presume to tell him which of the many competing agenda items, from jobs to health care to immigration, he should pick. But he has to pick one and stick with it. That’s how the most effective leaders get things done.
Second, ask, “What important initiatives should we say no to in 2014?” Identifying the priority is necessary but not sufficient. Talk is cheap when it comes to prioritization. The test comes when a leader decides what to say no to.
Indeed, the Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.” You can see this in words like scissors, homicide or fratricide. Leaders often think a decision means saying yes to something, but the core of the idea is what we’re willing to reject. As I wrote here, Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder, said in an interview with Fortune’s Betsy Morris in 2008, “People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”
It’s not enough for Obama just to haphazardly say no occasionally. He needs to purposefully, deliberately and strategically eliminate the nonessentials. Not just now as part of a new year planning meeting, but constantly—reducing, focusing, simplifying (see more of what I wrote on this here). To take one example, Jobs explained at a 2008 conference that Apple was working on the concept for the iPad long before the iPhone, but stopped working on it to focus solely on the iPhone (here’s a video of him talking about it). Apple’s engineers knew they couldn’t give their full attention to both products. By saying no to the iPad they were able, ultimately, to be successful with both.
Alastair Campbell, a top aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for many years, likened today’s communication challenge to painting a massive white wall, 50 yards away, using nothing but a paintball gun. You shoot a single ball and it makes the tiniest blue mark on the wall. The wall is still white but it now has a mark on it. You have got your message out there once but it is still drowned out. So you shoot another ball over. Then another and another and another. You shoot hundreds of paint balls until eventually you look over there and the wall could be white or blue. This is the best you can hope for. If Obama tries to cover too many subjects, each represented by a different color paintball, there is no way the message will get through.
Third, ask, “How can I radically alter my routine?” Tony Blair was recently asked what advice he would give to a president or prime minister about how to most effectively get things done. He cited research his foundation did for a president who had a list of five or six priorities but spent only 4 percent of his time working on them. Blair said, “If it’s a priority, you’ve got to devote the time. Delegation is fine up to a point, but if it’s a real priority, one of the four or five things that you’re going to be judged on, you’ve got to spend the time and your schedule has got to allow you to spend the time.” It’s a simple idea, but I have seen many leaders who get tricked by the trivial.
Put aside one’s views of the Affordable Care Act. What is striking about its rollout of Obamacare is how absent Obama was on the details of its implementation. In just one example Obama said, “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to.” That is pretty shocking but it’s easy to see how it might happen. The president only has as much time as the rest of us and between official visits, fundraising activities and cabinet meetings it’s easy to imagine a full plate of activities. Which is to say nothing of the range of crises—Syria springs to mind—coming at him from around the world.
As a rule of thumb, I would suggest the president spend 50 percent of his time on his top priority, lest he end up making a millimeter of progress in a million directions—and not enough on the big initiatives that will define his legacy.
Clare Booth Luce shared a similar concern for President John F. Kennedy. Luce, one of the first women to serve in Congress, purportedly went to see Kennedy early in his term as president. She said, “A great man is a sentence.” And elsewhere explained, “History has no time for more than one sentence, and it is always a sentence that has an active verb.” Put differently, otherwise capable leaders often plateau in what they achieve because they simply pursue too many good things. So as he comes back from vacation and finalizes his agenda for 2014, Obama ought to be asking himself: What do I want my one sentence to be?