Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An Introvert as President (updated)

Joshua Green certainly stirred things up with his article about how "Obama is too cool for crisis management." I encourage you to read responses from both Matt Yglesias and Danny Vinik. But what Green did is simply magnify the story many in the media tell us about President Obama - that he is cool, aloof, cerebral, disengaged and remote.

What none of them seem to be aware of or acknowledge is that this President is actually an introvert in a world that values extroverts. If you have any doubts about that, listen to an introvert - Susan Cain - talk about her own experience and provide us with some history of how/why our attachment to extroversion came about.

Speaking as an introvert myself, I understand the judgements extroverts often make about us. I too thought there was something wrong with me as I recoiled from what felt like the mania of others. Until I was able to learn to value introversion, I thought of myself as lazy, disengaged and an observer rather than a participant. That's what it means to be an introvert in a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else.

But take a look at one of the definitions of introversion:
The act of directing one's interest inward or to things within the self.
That's not an act of selfishness (another critique often leveled at introverts), its about finding your own authenticity. And so I'm reminded of Jon Favreau's response to a question about whether or not President Obama is "remote."
I think that the remoteness thing comes from...he doesn't do artifice well. He doesn't do schtick well, right? It goes back to that authenticity thing. He knows who he is, he believes who he is and he's not going to put on some facade just because he's supposed to glad-handle someone. He would rather actually get to know that to them, have a real conversation - not recite talking points - and enjoy that person's company.
Introverts are fascinated by the lives and stories of other people. We simply have a low tolerance for the superficial. Because we value authenticity, we don't tend to excel at the games that are often played by both co-dependents and the powerful elite. Here's what Michael Lewis noticed about President Obama.
His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his stat­us needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established stat­us structures.
This is a good example of how stories of meaning are developed. If you view President Obama through the lens of assumptions about the superiority of extroversion, the story you tell will be about his deficiencies in leadership. But if - like Susan Cain does in the video above - you can find the value of introverts in today's world, you'll tell a whole different of competence.

UPDATE: Hat tip to Delna for this:
John Heilemann is quoted as saying this:
I don't think he doesn't like people. I know he doesn't like people. He's not an extrovert; he's an introvert. I've known the guy since 1988. He's not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He's not a backslapper and he's not an arm-twister. He's a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities.
That's classic of what extroverts say about introverts - that they don't like people. When - as Favreau and Lewis pointed out above - what they don't like is game-playing, superficiality and artifice.

Funny, but I'm old enough to remember when pundits and conservatives were actually scandalized by the fact that President Obama enjoyed dinner parties  with intellectuals where the conversation went deep into the night ;-) That's classic introversion.

What Heilmann gets right is that introverts don't tend to have a wide circle of friends. What they usually have is a small group of friends with whom the attachment goes deep.

1 comment:

  1. When I see him before audiences out of Washington, he's warm, funny, passionate. When he's IN Washington, he's cool and calm. I think he reads his role correctly. The President is our national policy spokesman, and it is not the time and place for buddy-like give-and-take. On the road, meeting and greeting people and expounding on issues IS the time for interaction and warmth. The issue for me is neither extrovert or introvert but a man who honestly respects the authority of his office and knows the difference in time and place.