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Leadership – Lonely at the Top

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Jay Winik wrote an interesting op-ed piece for today’s Wall Street Journal (January 3, 2009) titled Obama Will Find the White House Is a Lonely Place – The best advisers can’t take momentous decisions out of the president’s hands (free content). Mr. Winik is a historian and the author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America and The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800

For our president-elect, who is looking to history for guidance, herein lies a cautionary tale. Barack Obama will soon learn two lessons that all of our presidents, the great ones as well as the failed ones, discover — often the hard way. The challenges he will face will almost certainly be different from what he thought. And however talented his team, he will never be able to escape the often overwhelming isolation of presidential decision making.

Winik piece looks at some of the immense challenges and unrelenting stresses faced by previous Presidents like Lincoln and FDR.

If you have ever been a CEO or organizational leader, you’ve probably experienced the loneliness of leadership. Take that feeling and multiply it by 1000 and maybe you’ll begin to appreciate Barack Obama will be facing after taking office later this month.

But Mr. Obama should be under no illusions that things will turn out as neat or tidy as he hopes. Like every other president before him, he will not so easily be able to anticipate the next crisis coming around the bend, or the final shape of the current crisis roiling the country. And time and again he will ultimately be making the decisions utterly alone.

Despite his many talents, Mr. Obama’s presidency will almost certainly be a tall order given his lack of experience. Only the years ahead will tell. But perhaps he will be in good company. No less than the unanimously elected Gen. George Washington, whose wartime composure was legendary, nervously improvised at his first inauguration and actually trembled during his address to the Senate shortly thereafter. Little has changed since.

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About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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