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Who is the better change leader: Obama or McCain?

Harvard prof John Kotter is one of the foremost authorities on change leadership. I thought it would be interesting to apply Kotter’s eight-step process for implementing successful transformation to our two candidates for president, rating their effectiveness as change leaders. Here goes:

1. Increase Urgency – create the feeling that "we must act to address our situation."
McCain – short on prescriptions, long on attack. John gets a 0
Obama – heavy on diagnosis & prescriptions. Barack gets +1

2. Build the Guiding Team – put together the right group with the power to deliver.
McCain – For the inner circle, Steve Schmidt and the team have had trouble managing the Palin message. For VP, McCain has chosen a new face with some good history. From the party, the current US president stays at arm’s length. I give John -1
Obama – Inside David Plouffe has successfully unseated Hillary and executed consistent strategy to Put Obama out in front for his party. For VP, Obama has picked a seasoned statesman. On the outside he has won the support of Kennedy, Clinton & Carter. I give Barack +1

3. Get the Vision right – Create a compelling future that generates bold action.
McCain – The current cover of the economist says, "Bring back the real McCain." He talks about all the right things, but prescriptions are eclipsed by attacks on his opponent. I give McCain -1
Obama – Obama proclaims, "Enough." He lays out specific actions to address top priorities. I give Obama +1

4. Communicate for Buy-in – Send heartfelt messages that appeal to the gut.
McCain – His stalwarts give him a standing ovation. But the crowd is mostly white. Where is everyone else? I give John -1
Obama – His ranks are growing and his audiences look like America. I give Barack +1.

5. Empower Action – Remove barriers so your evangelists can act.
McCain – The Republicans shine when it comes to systematic organized, coherent effort. This election is no different. The machine is in swing. I give John +1
Obama – Democrats are notorious for chaos when it comes to structured, impactful execution. But, this guy is different. Obama has a machine, too. Barack gets +1.

6. Create Short-term wins – Demonstrate success as fast as possible.
McCain has pulled out in front from initial stumbling. John gets +1
ascent is nothing short of miraculous: Barack gets +1

7. Don’t Let Up – Generate wave after wave of action until victory is achieved.
Too early to tell. Both John and Barack get +1 for their current intensity.

8. Make change stick – Firmly embed new behavior.
McCain’s past performances show his persistence and ability to plant one win on top of another, legitimately changing the way people think and act. John gets +1
Obama’s previous efforts have made dramatic differences that continue to withstand the pressure to revert. Barack gets +1

total scores:
John McCain +1
Barack Obama +8

You know where I stand. How about you? (Remember, to post a comment, you have to register)

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  • Michael Kull

    I think McCain would make a decent president, but I think at this moment in history Obama is the person we need. We need more statesmen like Obama who are great storytellers: who both make their personal rise compelling but also are capable of putting the American story in its proper context.

    The "executive experience" issue is a red herring. If you have been effective in the legislative or judicial branch, it would be a divergence to move into the executive branch where you would hold less influence. We also need to be clear what we mean by "executive" experience. Donald Trump has a lot of corporate executive experience, which is probably not exactly what we need, though that would be a more appropriate conversation.

    Rating the candidates based on sound leadership principles is an entirely appropriate way to judge them and far more reasonable than some partisan litmus test. Nice going Seth: thanks for raising the bar on the discourse.

  • Stephen Denning

    Thanks, Seth, for this interesting analysis.

    In assessing the candidates as change leaders, it might also be a good idea to address a prior question: in which direction are they proposing to lead us?

    Thus the candidates appear to be proposing to lead us in different directions.

    Judging from speeches at the Republican convention, it appears that McCain-Palin are aiming to move the country towards the overturning Roe vs Wade, a guarantee of guns for all, more tax breaks for the wealthy and an ever more aggressively militaristic foreign policy.

    By contrast, it appears that Obama-Biden are aiming to move the country towards resolving the health care crisis, improving education, doing something about jobs and housing, preserving freedom of choice for women, and a much more nuanced approach to foreign policy that would re-establish the reputation of the USA in the world.

    These are two radically different agendas. If your goal is the Republican agenda, then Obama-Biden should get very low marks in making it happen, since they're not trying to do that.

    Similarly, if your goal is the Democratic agenda, you would have little chance of getting it implemented by McCain-Palin, since they appear to have other priorities.

    Hence this question of direction needs to be settled first, before considering the executive capabilities of either team.

    The curious reality is that none of the four P/VP candidates have any significant executive experience of implementing change at the national level. So it's hard to judge how they will do in immplementing their respective agendas. Some good campaigners have turned out to be rather bad at governing. FDR seemed to have little experience prior to being elected, but is usually judged as having been quite effective in leading change.

    But the more important and prior question is: in which direction should we head?

  • Peter Eriksson

    Interesting analysis Seth, a new way of looking at a subject that have been analyzed to death by talking heads on TV with very little new insight.
    Let us make this easier for the average voter:

    If you with change are referring to simply change from the past administration, something that 80% of the voters seem to support, the analysis becomes much less complicated.
    My hope is that people will inform themselves about the policy suggestions from both candidates (in other words take their civic duties seriously, a rare virtue in today's USA):
    One candidate wants to embrace supply side economics (with a 30 year perfect record of continuous failure), a continued one sided and aggressive foreign policy and a corporate agenda for energy policies ($2M from big oil so far). In other words, more of the same. The other candidate differ very significantly in his approach (see campaign website).

    Whether the policies will be implemented or not (no success, no change) depends to a large degree on the political skills by the admin. insiders and a cooperative congress (= under the control of a like minded leadership supported by a filibuster proof majority):
    Comparison superfluous.

    The above, admitted short, analysis leads to one clear answer on which candidate gives us a better promise of positive change (rather than better "change leader") which, I think, is what really matters in the long run for most people.

  • Ross Wirth

    Two comments. First, the timing of this blog seems a bit biased since it comes prior to the ending of the Republican Convention and the Democrats have had an opportunity to completely paint their vision for the future. A better base point would have been today when both conventions have run their course and each candidate has publically given his vision for the future. Secondly, the Kotter change model is one built on stages where success at latter steps is dependent on work successfully completed in earlier stages. Summing up ratings for all eight steps does not give a good indication for success or performance, especially if earlier steps are incomplete or not accepted by those who matter.

  • carol wilgus

    Hoping this comment goes through...I am an Obama supporter. Relying on Palin one heartbeat away from the Presidency is frightening at best. I can rely on Biden, his experience is huge and I think he can take the United States where it should go. Palin still hasn't been investigated fully. She is facing charges of abuse of power, and we already have (and have had) this with the Bush administration. I'm beginning to think that McCain was talked into this choice. It doesn't 'sound' like a real choice he would personally make.

  • Megan DaGata

    I know that I am going to sound like a bad guy (girl), but Obama came out of no where to run for the top office in the land. He has no experience as a worldly politician, and his first trip to visit our troops was under 6 months ago. He may feel like he is up for the job, but I feel like I can run for a public office and do a good job. I didn't say win an election, I said do a good job. He may be a great guy, he may inspire the masses, but what if he doesn't have the gumpsion to do more. What if instead of being the person who brings about great good for our nation, he unwillingly increases taxes and doesn't follow through on this message of change.

    I am still not sure of John McCain either. He has a terrific war record and has lived his life in service to the USA, but over $2 million of his campaign has been funded by the oil profits that we are all outraged about. I think if he is going to put "country first" as his campaign suggests then he needs to break with the Republican tradition of big oil. As a person who works in the energy field I support the need for more drilling, but I think we should look at the use of natural gas in place of unleaded. We shouldn't be exporting large quantities of our own processed fuel to be used in other countries while importing more to sell in local markets.

    I personally don't feel that a VP choice has much to do with running the country. They have their place in government, but unless the President dies during their office they can't do much damage...Cheney aside. Even, Al Gore didn't insight much change until after is time on capitol hill. If we choose Obama he will have to depend more on his VP as an advisor than McCain. He is not the older statesman, and lacks the experience of both McCain and Joe Biden. If we choose McCain we will have a great president, but we have to be cautious and pray he stays in good health because Palin will be in a learning roll. She has great experience, but will need to learn the fundamentals of international politics and gage her affect on the audience, she is a small town person with small town values. It will be interesting to see how she evolves over the next few months.

  • Seth Kahan

    Chris, look for Obama's record in his activity prior to the election: Senate record and accomplishments as an activist. Relative diversity is an indicator of support the candidate is currently rallying.

    John, evaulating now, while both candidates are in process is fair as both are in the same stage of the election. Neither has won as neither has lost. I am saying by my count Obama is the better change leader, not the better candidate nor the winner. However, I think effective change leadership is a good predictor of success. As there are a good 2 months to go, we may see McCain shift in several of these categories.

    Michael, you are arguing that Obama's claims are not backed by previous results. If you feel that Obama is lying, this would reduce his score greatly. However, if you are stating that he has no record to review, then I would counter with his history.

    Focus here is not to decide who is the better candidate, but who is doing a more effective job at change leadership. My argument stands

  • Michael Piacenza

    Obama can give a speach, but where is the meat? He has turned down repeated offers for debates, which McCain accepted. He hasn't introduce any major bills during his short time in office. Is all of his talk about change just that, talk. We are not electing his speach writers. I have to go with McCain this time. Let's see what Obama has done for change in four years from now. Where is the meat?

    Playful Coyote

  • John S Wren

    Why do this "evaluation" now? Data set is very incomplete, in my opinion.

    I was a Hillary Clinton delegate to our state convention who will not decide whether to support Obama or McCain until after his talk tonight and the analysis over the weekend.

    Let's not rush to judgement. The one thing we can all agree on right now is that this is a big decision, a watershed moment November 4. Why decide now just before we have more complete information? Makes me suspect this is the rationalization of an Obama supporter from the beginning, rather than an objective evaluation.

  • Anonymous

    I'm still undecided, but I find your ratings capricious at best. Despite Obama's undisputed ability to inspire, he lacks a record (yet) on making change stick and falls short on providing details. You give him high marks for both. And why should the relative diversity of the candidates' supporters be a criteria in judging their ability to deliver a heartfelt message?

    I think a less biased analysis would find a narrow victory for either McCain or Obama, much like we'll see in the fall.

  • Joseph Allan

    I'm still undecided, but I find your ratings capricious at best. Despite Obama's undisputed ability to inspire, he lacks a record (yet) on making change stick and falls short on providing details. You give him high marks for both. And why should the relative diversity of the candidates' supporters be a criteria in judging their ability to deliver a heartfelt message?

    I think a less biased analysis would find a narrow victory for either McCain or Obama, much like we'll see in the fall.