TheDC Interview: Harvard Business School professor Robert Steven Kaplan on his book, Obama’s leadership

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Robert Steven Kaplan wants you to figure out what you’re really supposed to do in life.

A professor and associate dean at Harvard Business School, Kaplan is the author of  “What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential.” Previously a vice chairman of the Goldman Sachs Group, he is also currently the chairman of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and a founding partner of Indaba Capital Management.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Kaplan talked about his book, President Barack Obama’s leadership skills and much more:

Why did you decide to write the book?

I believe there is an enormous amount of confusion about how to achieve a fulfilling life and career. Shouldn’t I try to do what my family, friends and society want me to do? Who defines my success? I wrote this book to help people create their own definition of success and then work to achieve it. This can be a tall order for many people and I wrote this book to lay out a step by step roadmap for getting there.

How does one determine what they are really meant to do?

It starts with understanding yourself. What are your skills, what are your passions, do you know your values and ethical boundaries? How does the story of your life impact your mindset and ability to bring your skills to bear? Reaching your potential is about understanding all these facets and then working to match them to opportunities. It also involves making the most of each opportunity once you’re in a specific job. This is not a destination. It is a lifelong effort that takes many twists and turns.

What makes a great leader — as opposed to a bad or even merely good one? 

In my view, great leaders learn to articulate a clear vision of how their organizations distinctively add value. They set priorities based on their vision and work to align the organization to achieve their objectives. While they’re doing this, they are constantly learning to frame questions, engage others and better understand themselves. Leadership is not about having all the answers or trying to go it alone — it is, instead, about asking the right questions, being open to debate and adapting to reality.

How do you rate the current president’s leadership skills?

The current president is a very talented person. However, I would love to see him articulate more clearly and frequently his aspirations for the country. He did that very effectively as a candidate for president but maybe less effectively once in office. For example, how does healthcare reform or improved regulations of the financial services industry fit with his vision for the country — how does it serve to help rebuild the middle class and improve our competitiveness? There’s a tremendous narrative to be told and the president has to do that. Without a clear narrative, people attribute motives to Obama that he may not have and the country gets mired in tactical debates which don’t really connect to the future of the country. The vision is the prism through which each action and priority makes sense.

Right now we are witnessing the disastrous implementation of the president’s health care law. If the president called you for advice on how to correct course, what would you tell him? 

I’m not big on second-guessing and assigning blame. I agree with the approach of admitting error, putting a team in place to fix the website, and moving forward. My main advice would be to more fully explain the overall rationale for healthcare reform — why pooling young, old, healthy, less healthy will ultimately benefit the entire country. While some groups will sacrifice to accomplish health care reform (and he needs to acknowledge that), it is better for the country because it helps strengthen the middle class and ultimately improve the competiveness of the country. He needs to specifically tell that story — or make changes in the law so he can articulate a vision for how it strengthens our nation. The implementation can fall to other — the vision must be articulated by the leader — including explaining the reality that some groups will sacrifice to make this happen.

You teach at Harvard Business School. Why should someone go to business school as opposed to striking out on their own and trying to start a business? 

Business school is not for everyone. However, it is a fantastic opportunity for MBA’s as well as executives to learn how to put themselves in the shoes of a decision maker and figure out what and how they would do in that seat. We cover a broad range of subjects but we always come back to asking students to put themselves in the shoes of the decision maker. I think this is great discipline — one that I have used ever since graduating from HBS (back in the stone age).

What is the most interesting anecdote or statistic you discovered putting together your book?

The biggest surprise is that just about everyone struggles to figure out how to reach their potential. No one has the market cornered on what they’re really meant to do. If you have it figured out for several years, something changes that causes you to re-think it. I had previously thought that some people just had it all figured out. I have learned that we all have self-doubt, we all want to be relevant and make an impact on the world in some way — and we’re all struggling to figure out how best to do that. Knowing that you’re not the only one is very comforting to people. This whole effort is a process like getting in shape or losing weight — you never totally get there. It’s a lifelong effort.

Finally, what three books most shaped your worldview?

I love biographies. The Manchester books about Churchill and Macarthur. The Doris Kearns Goodwin books about Lincoln and Roosevelt. The David Halberstam books about the Vietnam War and group think as well as the books he wrote about sports. The Caro book about Robert Moses. All these books had a big impact on my thinking about leadership and the struggles that leaders endure.

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Jamie Weinstein