Jan 25

The Audacity of Authenticity

Roger Bolton

I find myself wondering if President Obama has read The Authentic Enterprise. Well, of course he hasn’t. But his actions certainly are consistent with the major recommendations of the Page Society’s white paper. That’s not totally surprising, in that success in politics often is built on the same principles as success in business. But it’s as if he’s following a road map.

Look at the report’s recommendations and think about how the president’s actions line up:

1. Define and activate core values. The president’s inaugural address was remarkable for its call for a return to fundamental values. Territory that had been appropriated by Republicans was suddenly being occupied by the candidate of change. It turns out that the change President Obama envisions involves old things: “… those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.”

When the PR Coalition met at the State Department for the Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy two years ago, the department discussed polling data which showed that America’s loss of standing in the world resulted not from a rejection of America’s core values, but rather from the impression – right or wrong – that America’s actions were inconsistent with our professed beliefs – in democracy, multilateralism and the rule of law. The values themselves continue to make the American ideal the aspiration of all people. If President Obama can rally Americans and the American government to a return to our fundamental values, he will go a long way toward reviving trust in America.

2. Build and manage integrated multi-stakeholder relationships. The transition period was a masterpiece of reaching out to different stakeholders. The first “post-partisan” president is sending strong signals that he truly wants a genuine dialogue with constituencies that are not his natural supporters. His informal dinner with conservative columnists and formal dinner honoring John McCain have defused much of the hysteria about his liberal Senate voting record and associations with the likes of Jeremiah Wright and William Ayres.

Gerald Seib’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal mentions the odd bedfellow nature of the president’s calls to conservative GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with whom he’s built a trusting relationship. Seib notes that “Mr. Coburn thinks the new president will be able, in particular, to work with him and other conservatives on measures to make government more transparent and to eliminate programs.” In other words, they’ll cooperate when they agree. There are limits to the cooperation, Seib notes, as Coburn is likely to oppose the president’s stimulus package unless it’s changed from its initial version.

Maybe the president and Sen. Coburn will find common ground on the stimulus package and maybe they won’t. But the fact that they are willing to have a responsible dialogue means that President Obama is building good will that will temper (at least a little) future criticism. More importantly, it just might lead to better decisions and forge the broad consensus that leads to a successful presidency.

3. Enable people with new media skills and tools. The Obama campaign’s use of new media has revolutionized campaigning. As Time Magazine reported last week, “Three million people have given [Obama] money; 2 million have created profiles on Obama’s social-networking site. More than 1.2 million volunteered for the campaign, which has trained about 20,000 in the business of community organizing.” Perhaps even more importantly, the president’s web supporters and online organizers feel an empowerment that has created an ongoing commitment.

In the post-election period, Time reported, “about 4,500 house parties were held around the country, and a total of 550,000 people responded to an online survey asking how they would like to contribute their time and energy over the coming years. At about the same time, nearly 5,000 groups responded to a call from Obama’s transition team for reports on the best ways to tackle health-care reform. More recently, some 100,000 people participated in an interactive feature on the transition website Change.gov, which allows people to vote on questions they want Obama to answer.”

This is the kind of commitment of which companies that are investing in social media can only dream.

4. Build and manage trust in all its dimensions. By recommitting to old values, building relationships with disparate stakeholders and empowering people with new media skills, President Obama has taken major steps toward building trust in his Administration and in the country. In addition, he’s promised a new era of transparency, making government processes more open and accessible. He’s also taking care to re-establish America’s commitment to humane interrogation practices, while simultaneously reiterating the nation’s commitment to fight terrorists: “…you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

No one should be naïve enough to believe that by following these simple guidelines, the Obama Administration will be immune to controversy or criticism. Certainly no company following them would expect a free ride from those who disagree with its policies and practices. But by seeking to build relationships of trust, President Obama is giving himself a fighting chance to enact his agenda and achieve his lofty objectives. Any global enterprise wishing to achieve its objectives ought to consider doing the same.

Roger Bolton
Senior Counselor
APCO Worldwide

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