You could sense the anger in the President’s words and on his face as he spoke to the nation yesterday after a meeting with his national security and intelligence aides. "This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," the President explained. "That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it."
We already knew some things about President Obama’s management style. The first thing we knew about it is that it was a work in progress: Obama had been a legislator, not a chief executive, for most of his career and the skill sets are remarkably different. The second thing we knew from watching him during the campaign and in his first year in office is that he brings a breathtaking degree of self-confidence into the room: He was not afraid to challenge then-Sen. Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and he also was not afraid to appoint her to be the nation’s Secretary of State. Thirdly, we realized that Obama is, at heart, a wonk, that his first instinct is to learn more, to get divergent opinions and encourage heated debate among his advisors. His decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was the result of such a process and it has its obvious benefits.
Yesterday, we saw full force what we have only seen glimpses of beforehand: A steely anger at those whose performance does not measure up to his standards. It is a rite of passage as much as a right and responsibility of those in executive authority. Everyone who has been in a subordinate position, who has felt the lash of authority, who has worked under a rage-a-holic, imagines themselves being a different kind of boss someday, someone whose leadership is benign, who is never cross, who does not visit frustrations upon his underlings. Certainly, Obama’s commitment to rational processes, and his own considerable self-control, betray his sense that reason should rule the passions, not the other way round – and we should all be grateful for this quality of his character.
Sometimes, alas, a person in executive leadership must exhibit anger, must call people to task, must fire those who are incompetent, in short, must lead with their heart not with their head. Staff, all staff, even the staff at an organization like the CIA or the FBI, needs to be monitored and encouraged and chastised because they are human beings which is another way of saying they will make mistakes. Even with some righteous anger from the boss, there will still be mistakes. Another Abdulmutallab will fall through the cracks. A piece of scanning equipment will malfunction before someone notices. Something, somewhere, will always go wrong. The goal is to minimize those instances and their consequences.
The President showed us something we needed to see about him yesterday. We Americans want to know that our President gets upset when those entrusted with keeping us safe mess up. We need to see his emotions every once in awhile because we know that political leadership requires more than brains: Jimmy Carter was undoubtedly one of the smartest presidents of the twentieth century but his presidency was not the most successful. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was said to have "a first class temperament but a second class intellect" but that combination made him the most consequential president of the century. I was comforted seeing the President’s barely controlled, highly focused anger yesterday, and I was glad it wasn’t directed at me.