On June 26, 1963, President John Kennedy stood in Berlin, looked over the sea of people and declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner.)
Twenty-four years later standing by the Berlin wall, President Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
In each of these instances, the President understood the power and scope of intuitive leadership. They owned the uniqueness of the moment and gave it significance.
That is precisely what leadership is about particularly in a democratic society. Leaders seize the moment.
Time and time again during the administration of President Harry Truman an endless array of challenges arose and each and every time he allowed his leadership instincts to guide him. We are familiar with the big decisions like dropping the atom bomb, closing the war, establishing the containment of the Soviet Union, and conducting the Korean War. But how about the other ones like dealing with steel, transportation and coal strikes while trying to guide America from a wartime to a peacetime economy that could absorb the millions of returning veterans and deal with the needs of employment, housing and transportation. On top of that, he had to make highly unpopular decisions like firing General Douglas McArthur. He took a beating, but he still led.
In 1948, the Democratic Party was torn apart when former Vice President Henry Wallace led the “Progressives” out of the party and Strom Thurmond formed the southern Dixiecrats and stormed out of the convention. Truman did not whine. No. He went out and campaigned with abandon. He knew the soul of America and touched it. His stunning upset victory was all about intuitive leadership rather than endless polls, political consultants and special interest money.
A different kind of intuitive leadership came on the eve of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1945, immediately following General Eisenhower’s order to launch the invasion the following morning. He clearly understood the enormity of the task, its’ complexities, and the risk of possible failure. What guided him was not fear but rather full confidence in this “Great Crusade” when he declared to all allied troops that the “tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”
This was a summons to greatness – a clear example of intuitive leadership.
Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published a book entitled Blink which perfectly encapsulated this whole concept of trusting intuition which is the processing of the sum total of all our life experiences. For instance, that is why some art critics can simply look at a masterpiece and immediately determine its authenticity or a conductor can listen to a few notes played on an instrument and conclude brilliance.
Leadership is about using that instinct and knowing the importance of these historical moments.
Unfortunately, this quality seems not to be present in President Obama. On Monday of this week, we waited for the President to speak – to rally us – to summon us to a higher mission – to instill in us and the markets a sense of confidence. We, as a people, believe in American exceptionalism and are committed to the belief that we must give to our children more opportunity, more chances for success than we had. We further believe our leaders embrace the furtherance of that commitment. If the President calls upon us to sacrifice for the greater good, we welcome that challenge.
However, when the President spoke, there was no call to action, no special session of a vacationing Congress, no summit of political and financial leaders. Simply put, it was a small talk for a big occasion.
Now, this Presidency can still recover. Yes, it needs more vibrancy, more openness, more coalition building. But, it also needs a new sense of resolve that firmly places the Presidency in charge of protecting and enhancing the long-term common good. Toward this end, it cannot waiver.
Remember, we, as Americans, want our leaders to succeed.