Obama's Positive Coaching Masterpiece

Speaking in sports metaphors, Barak Obama hit a home run, a grand slam, last night in Denver.  Perphaps touchdown would be a better metaphor since he was at a football stadium.  And he spiked the ball.

There’s no doubt he’s one of the best American orators in generations.  One of the reasons he’s so good is that he’s mastered what the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) calls filling the “Emotional Tank.”  In their best selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath explore the Emotional Tank with Jim Thompson of the PCA.

The PCA holds positive coaching seminars for youth sports coaches. At the seminars, trainers use the analogy of an Emotional Tank tget coaches to think about the right ratio of praise, support, and critical feedback.  The Emotional Tank is like the gas tank of an automobile. If your car’s tank is empty, you can’t drive very far.  If your emotional tank is empty, you are not going to perform at your very best (158).

Obama consistently hits the right mix of praise, support and critical feedback in his campaign, especially his big speeches, from the Yes We Can after the New Hampshire primary to last night’s galvenizing address.  Along the way he pointed out how others drain the emotional tank of a people.

If the current administration were your sports coach, they would tell you what to do and yell at you when you didn’t do it.  They would call a running play on third and long and belittle you, the player when it didn’t work for not supporting the coaching staff enough, for not giving it your all.  If the current administration were parents, each time a child asked a question, their response would be “Because I said so.”  Obama has understood from the beginning that this type of leadership is emotionally draining and that a good leader fills the emotional tank.

Contrary to his opponent’s criticism, and counter intuitive to the term, filling the emotional tank is not just about making people feel good, however.  A coach who just slaps players on the back and makes them feel good about themselves will not succeed either.  There needs to be the correct mix of emotional praise, support and teaching or in an non-coaching context such as a speech – uplifting, teaching and holding people responsible – all of that was in the speech in Denver last night and all that has been in Obama’s campaign in correction proportion all the way through. It is the right style and the right the delivery for the right time. It’s the reason he beat Hillary and the Democratic primary field and the reason I think he’ll beat McCain. He is playing 21st century politics to a post modern audience, he’s coaching a 21st century post modern America and like he said last night, his opponent just doesn’t get it.

It’s not that McCain’s a bad person, and interestingly enough, it’s almost beyond right or wrong in terms of policy. It’s that some people are still trying to play a game (and hence devise policy and strategies for a game) that’s over. What Obama made the case for is “We’re playing a new game now.  We want you to play this game with us, we really do.”  Politics has been discussed as game theory before, but I never saw so cleary a politician as a coach until hearing Obama’s speech in the wake of reading the Heath’s book.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic.com on his Daily Dish blog in a post titled The Hope We Confess made a reference that pointed to another sports metaphor –  “I own you.”  Sullivan noted that Obama didn’t shy away from National Defense issues (nor did he shy away from any issues, do I hear echoes of Bring it On?) and said Obama “owned this issue in a way that no Democrat has owned it since Kennedy. That’s a transformative event.”  Indeed it was. For the opponent’s party build’s its reputation on being the party of national defense and Obama took that play out of the playbook, so to speak.


Above all, he took on national security – face on, full-throttle, enraged, as we should all be, at how disastrously American power has been handled these past eight years. He owned this issue in a way that no Democrat has owned it since Kennedy. That’s a transformative event. To my mind, it is vital that both parties get to own the war on Jihadist terror and that we escape this awful Rove-Morris trap that poisons the discourse into narrow and petty partisan abuse of patriotism. Obama did this tonight. We are in his debt.

Look: I’m biased at this point. I’m one of those people, deeply distressed at what has happened to America, deeply ashamed of my own misjudgments, who has shifted out of my ideological comfort zone because this man seems different to me, and this moment in history seems different to me. I’m not sure we have many more chances to get off the addiction to foreign oil, to prevent a calamitous terrorist attack, to restore constitutional balance in the hurricane of a terror war.

I’ve said it before – months and months ago. I should say it again tonight. This is a remarkable man at a vital moment. America would be crazy to throw this opportunity away. America must not throw this opportunity away.

Know hope.

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