Obama As An Academic Leader?
August 29, 2012, 05:16 AM
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The question of leadership and Obama's biography, as laboriously compiled by David Maraniss of the Washington Post (see my review here), is a puzzling one. We have a President who had every opportunity to exert leadership as a young man — everybody who knew him considered a cool dude, he was tall, decent-looking, fairly athletic, kind of funny, quite popular — but he made few efforts to get things organized and accomplished at a group level.

Maraniss doesn't believe Obama's account of race working against him, and I have to believe that in Honolulu/L.A./NYC circles in the 1970s and 1980s, it had to work for him. 

To take one random data point, in the summer of 1975 when I went to Boys's State in Sacramento (this kind of a mock election convention sponsored by the American Legion — Bill Clinton was huge in it when he was in high school), we all worked hard and succeeded in getting this black guy in our dorm elected Governor out of about 800 delegates. He was a good guy and had a good story — from a nice church-going family in a tough neighborhood — but being black in 1975 in California was clearly an advantage in this kind of pseudo-election among ambitious teens. 

This is not to argue whether or not being black in California in 1975 would have been a net plus or minus for, say, Tom Bradley running for governor of California in the adult real world (being black likely was a moderate minus for Bradley). But in 1975 Boy's State in California, being black helped this one kid I knew be Gubernatorial Timber. And Obama was three years behind me in school. 

But, to get back to the young Obama, he didn't seem to want to be a leader of any group modest enough to accept him as their leader. Maraniss describes him as having the observant, disengaged personality of an anthropologist or writer. He didn't want to get caught in "life's traps" by getting too involved in anything (such as actually finishing his short stories and getting them published or writing scholarly law articles for the Harvard Law Review or when he was at the U. of Chicago law school).

Is this a typical career path for a future university president: a recessive personality when young, then blossoming into leadership in maturity? I mention this because Obama's family tree is full of academics. His white grandmother's sister was a statistics prof, his ne'er do well white grandfather's brother got a Berkeley Ph.D, then went into federal government work in Washington. 

On the other hand, most of the college presidents who have caught my attention for their ability to gladhand their way to big donations are obvious balls of fire who would have quickly risen to Executive VP of Sales at all the corporations I've worked for. I recall reading one dynamic college president's account of how he'd promised himself that for his 61st birthday he'd take on this physical challenge he'd always dreamt of? I'm thinking, yeah, if I were 61 and as rich as this guy, I'd ... play Pebble Beach without taking a cart, get a caddie and walk all 18 holes! 

Instead, this 61-year-old climbed the tallest mountain in Antartica, 16,000 feet. (Sounds cold. Personally, I'd think a less unpleasant way to celebrate your 61st birthday would be to go camp inside a frozen meat locker for two weeks.) Coming down, he met one of the college's biggest donors, some self-made tech zillionaire, going up. The president reported that two did some major high-altitude low-temperature bonding (ca-ching, ca-ching).

But these mile-a-minute college presidents tend to get appointed heads of less prestigious colleges that need cash fast. Are old-line colleges typically headed by more Obama-like personalities?