The White House 3.0
Why the future of Presidential power lies outside of The White House
Like most in my generation, I’m not remotely drawn to work in politics or government. Sure, it’s a sad statement of the times, but put differently, it’s also an opportunity to think differently about the way we lead and govern. Before getting to the future, let’s turn the clock back for some insight.
In early 2007, I was invited to spend a week at the nascent Obama for President campaign. I sat between the then eight-person new media team and two-person speech writing team. I honestly don’t believe anyone thought Obama had a serious chance to win at that point — not even Michelle Obama. She visited with the new media team for an hour or so one day where she kept expectations very low. Ironically, as the race progressed it was the new media approach and strategy as much as anything that catapulted Obama into the nomination.
Using terminology and framing from Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimens, coauthors of a recent Harvard Business Review paper entitled “Understanding New Power,” the Obama Campaign of 2008 mastered the forces of “new power” — power that is made by many and can be multiplied like a current — while the 2008 Hillary Clinton Campaign relied far too heavily on “old power” — power that works like a currency and is held by only a few.
By using a bevvy of social media tools, for instance, Obama’s campaign allowed groups of like-minded people to self-organize online such as “Green Business for Obama,” a network of business leaders who strongly supported alternative energy investment and technology. The group, which eventually grew to several hundred members, raised substantial funds for Obama’s campaign and provided a ready-made network and conduit into Silicon Valley. There were many other groups that organized online, including women leaders for Obama, farmers for Obama, artists for Obama, teachers in Napa for Obama. You name it. The campaign’s web platform allowed an incredible network and ecosystem of supporters, doers, and community leaders to connect all around the country.
Importantly, people in the Obama 08 campaign groups also benefited by enlarging their industry network. It was a win-win.
Then, in what will go down as one of the greatest lost opportunities of the Obama Presidency, the closer to actual governing Obama nudged, the more the campaign and Transition Team shifted towards old power people and tactics. Since I had been a strong supporter from the start, including as a member of a group called “Business Leaders for Obama,” a group that lined up business leaders’ endorsements and acted as a sounding board on economic policy, I watched as the enthusiasm and bonds of the campaign’s grassroots supporters and related ecosystems disappeared in a matter of months. “Yes We Can!” soon became “We’re basically the same as everyone else.”
Of course, 2008 and 2009 were extremely rough years, and the #1 priority was putting the brakes on a devastating economic tailspin and crisis. All hands were needed on deck to put out one fire after another. When I tried to persuade members of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team to create a separate entity to harness the bottom-up support to govern differently, I was understandably told that no one had any time. What a shame. All of those like-minded people could have been utilized as advisers, partners, collaborators, and champions for the ideas of an Obama Presidency. The combined influence would have been a tremendous asset in the business of influencing public opinion, as well as finding and spreading good approaches to solving citizens’ problems from the bottom up.
I’ve become convinced that a major paradigm shift is coming to the way presidents will govern.
Countering Helplessness: Small Actions
After the success of Obama’s 2008 effort, campaigning will never be the same. And, while the 2012 Obama campaign leaders tried to spin-out the campaign’s social media arm into a newly formed entity, the authentic connection that many of us felt to a larger narrative in 2008 was gone. The powers that be also picked what was probably the worst possible group to run it: the Democratic National Committee.
I don’t care what the data scientists say: People are not email addresses. People are not interest group lists. People are not fundraising assets to send the same basic template email with links after every paragraph to give money. Millions of Americans invested a small part of themselves into the Obama 08 Campaign because a small part of themselves felt connected to something larger, and that they could make a difference. It was a much-needed reprieve from the feelings of helplessness that otherwise grips Americans in relation to the Federal government.
In traveling the country extensively, I’m convinced that Americans are tired of those feelings of helplessness, something they feel hearing the cynical partisan narratives. They want to be a part of the solution, rather than the problem, even if in very small ways, say a $5 gift, or a teacher volunteering to help educate her friends on an issue. They want to be a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem. Americans need to see that change on some of America’s biggest challenges — be it climate change, educational improvements, or veterans support and transitions home, etc.
So, for example, let’s say you’re a citizen who cares about improving education. Right now, people donate to DonorsChoose.com to help teachers get extra school supplies. What if you could go onto a simple, cool, intuitive website, perhaps not unlike the Obama 08 website, to type in a bit about yourself, and started to develop a portfolio of ways you could support a cause such as education? You could immediately be connected with social ventures like DonorsChoose, while also seeing who else in your social network has a passion for a similar cause.
Even my Uncle Joe, therefore, could go online, fill in a simple profile, and feel connected to larger causes, where he could also take small actions. As I learned while doing research for my last book LITTLE BETS: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, the research is pretty clear: any time people feel as though the problem they are trying to solve is overly daunting, such as tackling global warming, they begin to feel emotions of helplessness. What people need is a sense of control, something achievable, or what the renowned researcher Karl Weick calls “small wins.”
In the future, any U.S. President who wants to build a “sticky” bond and relationship with citizens (read “voters”), he or she will need to use technology platforms and networks of collaborators, operated outside of the traditional governing structure. And, I believe that the best way to develop a bond that is independent of partisan nonsense, is to make it easy for people to connect across sectors with social entrepreneurs and nonprofits around their strongest areas of issue interests or passions, whether that is DonorsChoose for education, KIVA for supporting micro-investments in entrepreneurs, or Working Mother.com.
Confidence in Institutions
Nearly every institution in America lacks moral authority today, whether that’s politics, or business, or the media. The polling numbers are bleak, with approval ratings often in the single digits or low double digits. Fortunately, an entire generation of young people are excited about social entrepreneurship — they want to work at Teach for America, or companies that also make a positive social impact.
The key to American renewal is intimately tied to the rise of social entrepreneurship.
The Future: Platforms & Ecosystems
As we’ve all learned time and again, the answer to America’s institutional decay is not Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Just as the most innovative leaders and companies, ranging from Toyota to Alibaba to Pixar, recognize that the best innovations come from those who are closest to the problems, the smartest people working in government today understand that their ability to solve complex problems on their own from the top down is extremely limited. Whether it’s people working on the front lines of developing new approaches to countering terrorism, the answers lie outside of government, closer to the problems, and across sectors.
Take for example the question of bringing more creativity into American education. There are broad ecosystems and networks of people who care a lot about the challenge: the Montessori educators; Teach for America; the famous TED speaker Sir Ken Robinson; the bestselling author Daniel Pink; a range of foundations from the Gates Foundation to the MacArthur Foundation; Participant Productions and the Time Warner Foundation; the musician John Legend; and, hosts of artists, filmmakers, and parents. There is a call to arms: “We’re living in a world that requires all of us to be far more creative and adaptable than our current education system unlocks. We must act!”
At some point soon, a very smart political leader will realize that harnessing that passion, and those people into an ecosystem that can serve their desire to make little bets and small ways they can both connect with like-minded people, as well as projects. One such example could be a school like Lighthouse Creativity Lab in Oakland, California, a school that teaches urban youths a range of maker and design skills, in order to understand how develop their ideas through a discovery process, rather than begin with the answer. The people who are drawn to that project might also want to go to a regional creativity event each year, to be inspired to be around like-minded people. In much the way Facebook has risen to prominence, simple technology tools and platforms can connect people to causes and networks that are much larger than themselves where they can also share their ideas and meet new collaborators.
At a higher level, we all know that relationships hinge on shared interests and values. Influence often works in pyramids. In every industry and domain, there are certain people who stand out as highly respected leaders. The Roots band has influenced generations of musicians — from John Legend to a Tribe Called Quest to Jay-Z. The same can be said for producer Quincy Jones. In the investment world, Warren Buffett is at or near the top. In journalism, people like James Fallows of The Atlantic, Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, and Ezra Klein of VOX Media rise. In other parts of America, mayors are among the most respected people. As social entrepreneurs go, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America rises to the top of nearly everyone’s list.
For anyone wanting to influence public opinion in America, these “pyramids of influence” exist all around us. I think of the most respected members of society as “American Trustees,” people who have strong professional credentials and leadership, and a degree of moral authority. Before too long, I think we will see both U.S. Presidents and Congress vying to work with the most influential Americans to advance new ideas and, hopefully, reforms. When Warren Buffett comes out in support of an idea, the press pays attention, as do thousands if not millions of Americans. That influence, properly channeled, as it was with the Iraq Study Group, can help American presidents and Congress alike to educate the American public, and work toward common sense solutions.
It’s all a different way of thinking about the role of government. I’m fairly convinced that the days of getting bipartisan legislation passed on a regular basis is gone, at least for now. Instead, the leadership challenge now revolves around how to use highly influential platforms, such as The White House, to organize like-minded ecosystems and platforms to achieve thousands if not millions of small wins. Ultimately, whoever figures out how to listen to people like Uncle Joe, and inspire him to take small actions, too, will lead the country into a new era of leadership.
If you ask me, the revolution will be improvised.
Peter Sims is the bestselling author of “Little Bets” & “True North,” and is Co-founder of The Silicon Guild, a platform to convene thought leadership, and the co-founder of Fuse Corps, a social venture that supports year-long fellowships for entrepreneurial leaders to work with mayors in order to solve citizens’ problems in new and creative ways.