The description below, by President Obama, of the essence of leadership in complex times, is extraordinary. Reflect back on his presidency, and its achievements — reversing an incipient economic collapse, making (near) universal health insurance available for the first time in history, ‘bending the curve’ on American policy vis-à-vis climate change. grasping the nettle on immigration reform — and, hopefully, with a nuclear deal with Iran, modeling the possibilities of a foreign policy whose point of departure is the open-hand of a search for mutually beneficial options. One of the features of effective ‘with the grain’ efforts at change is that the achievements seem somehow unsatisfying — until one looks back, and sees how long is the distance has been travelled…….
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” President Obama told [David Remnick of the New Yorker – click here to link to the New Yorker article]. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that, if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that, at the end of the day, things will be better rather than worse.” “I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he continued. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. … But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges thatat the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
FINALLY — in case you’re wondering why I decided to illustrate this post with an image of river-rafting, here are the final few sentences of Working with the Grain: “A vision of ‘good governance’ is perhaps somewhat helpful as a north star that can help guide navigation, but it is no more than that. If the journey requires crossing a stormy sea, voyagers must navigate the heavy winds, and the churning currents. Inevitably, the winds, the tides, the ocean will bring new, unanticipated, and sometimes seemingly intractable challenges. Our task is to bring our best effort to the search for ways forward. We can do no more than that, and should strive to do no less.”
Indeed, the achievements acquired in “working with the grain” are often obscured and shadowed by the messiness of our context, but they are there; it’s just that they become clearly visible once the messiness has subsided.