• July 2010

The Power Issue

POWER is the theme for the July issue of Be Inkandescent Magazine. As an entrepreneur, we ask you to consider these questions: How do you define power? How do you harness it? Wield it? And how do you help others to be powerful in your organization?

Equally essential is this question: As a leader, how do you cope with the limits of power? Indeed, this is the situation that President Obama struggled with during his first term in office. For an analysis of the situation, we turn to July’s Entrepreneur of the Month Jonathan Alter.

The national affairs columnist at Newsweek, and a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC, Alter is the author of a new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, which hit bookstores last month. Within weeks, it climbed to number four on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Alter explains: “My goal was ambitious: to cover the important and compelling dimensions of the Obama story across a broad front, not snip off a piece; to push my sources for information that had not been published before; and to write in real time about a moving target — history on the fly.”

Scroll down to read the interview we did with Jonathan.

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: In the 18 columns framing this homepage, you’ll find the articles by our columnists who wrote about what power means in their industries. And do check out some powerful people that we interviewed this month:

  • Barbara Bush talks about her new Global Health Corps in the NONPROFIT column.
  • Learn why Ashley Judd is fighting to stop mountaintop mining in our TRULY AMAZING WOMEN section.
  • And be sure to read Part 1 of a 3-part series with DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in EDUCATION.

Speaking of taking a look at what makes someone powerful, consider what President Obama told Senior Advisor David Axelrod in the summer of 2008:

“The weird thing is, I know I can do this job. I like dealing with complicated issues. I’m happy to make decisions. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be an easier adjustment for me than the campaign. Much easier.” — from page 4, The Promise.

Here’s to your power, and your success.
Hope Katz Gibbs — Editor & Publisher, Be Inkandescent Magazine

The Promise: Jonathan Alter Writes the First Book on President Obama


By Hope Katz Gibbs

The word “promise” was repeated 19 times during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on August 28, 2008 — the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, explains Jonathan Alter in the prologue of his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One.

The President said: “I told you my story of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to. It is that promise that’s always set this country apart.

The promise of America, [is] the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”

Alter writes that less than three weeks later, “the economy nearly vaporized, and some of the promises he mentioned would soon recede from public view. But many of his words would resonate — or clang — through the first year of his presidency.”

Here’s why.

History in the Making

“I basically had three questions that I wanted to answer in the book,” explained Alter, when I sat down with him for an interview on May 21. “First, I wanted to know what happened when the doors of the Oval Office, Situation Room, and Cabinet Room closed.”

“Second, I wanted to learn what the president, known as the ‘professor-in-chief,’ was really like in meetings, on the basketball court, and when he was meeting with members of Congress,” he said. “Finally, I wanted to gauge how well he did that first year — how many promises did he keep, where he succeeded, where he failed.”

Alter also wanted to be first out of the gate with a book on the President. “It was neck-and-neck with another author for a while,” he admitted, but pulled it off with a May 2010 publication date.

And, he wanted to keep the book as “un-pundit-y” as possible so that it would appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. “This book is not about my opinion of President Obama,” Alter said. “My goal was not to say whether or not the country is going in the right or wrong direction. I simply wanted to provide as many details as possible so that everyone — Republicans and Democrats alike — could form a better and more informed judgment.”

The Critics Cast Their Ballots

Alter seems to have accomplished his mission, considering the quantity of partisan news programs, publications, and blogs that have featured him and the new book this summer — from the liberal Colbert Report to Jim Cramer’s conservative Mad Money TV show.

In fact, New York Times reporter Michiko Kakutani’s take on the book was reflective of the dozens of other newspaper reviews.

She wrote: “With relentless 24/7 media coverage of President Obama and a floodlet of books about him, the reader might well ask: Why another study of him and his White House, when his presidency is less than a year and a half old? And yet… Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise actually does give us a new perspective on the 44th president by providing a detailed look at his decision-making process on issues like health care and the Afghanistan war, and a keen sense of what it’s like to work in his White House, day by day. It’s an effective and often revealing approach reminiscent of Mr. Alter’s 2006 book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

About Jonathan Alter: A Historian with a Powerful Pen

A student of history, and passionate about the presidents who shape it, Alter is also the author of the 2006 bestseller The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days the Triumph of Power. I had the opportunity to interview him then for a feature in The Costco Connection, and was taken by the depth of his research, and his understanding of what made FDR tick.

The same holds true for the insight Alter brings to “The Promise,” a 458-pager filled with facts and footnotes based on interviews he conducted with 200 people inside and outside the government who have worked with the 44th president.

Alter also interviewed President Obama twice — once off the record, and then again on the record on November 30 in the Oval Office. (Listen to that conversation on the audio version of the book.)

He admitted that landing meetings with the Commander-in-Chief was no easy task. “Everything that has to do with the White House is complicated because they are extremely busy,” but similar to Obama’s “philosophy of persistence,” the journalist persevered.

Leadership Lessons from The Promise

In addition to offering insight into Obama himself, the 22-chapter book serves as a mini history lesson that recounts the events and legislation that shaped Obama’s first year in office. For example:

Obama Takes Charge: In Chapter 1, we learn that playing “3-D chess” is how his friends refer to Obama’s ability to always think a few moves ahead of his opponents. During the campaign especially, Alter writes, “His aim was to position himself on the board before anyone else — and checkmate his adversaries.”

White House-in-Waiting: “When the Democratic nominee called advisors in September and October about the future, Alter tells us in Chapter 2, he didn’t superstitiously say, “If I’m president …” He confidently said, “When I’m president …” Alter also notes that unlike Democratic presidents before him, who were generally considered bad at making the transition into office because they focused on policy rather than management, Obama appointed John Podesta to run the transition effort. “Podesta was a supremely well-organized guy and ran the operation as if it were a corporation,” Alter explains.

Picking Hillary: Podesta’s role was also pivotal in choosing Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, as we learn in Chapter 5. “It was first raised by John Podesta in small meetings over the summer,” Alter writes. “Obama had already been thinking about it… When Obama said publicly in 2007 that they began the race as friends, he was being sincere. He found Bill Clinton exasperating but Hillary formidable, even when she was delivering low blows.”

The Un-Bubba: We learn more about Obama’s insight into Bill Clinton in Chapter 13, as Alter explains, “The relationship between the former president and Obama moved over the course of three years from frost (they barely knew each other and traded private insults) to chilly, to polite.”

Chaos-istan: In Chapter 21, Alter gives us insight into Obama’s views on the Afghanistan war. “The autumn of 2009 was when Afghanistan became Obama’s war. The hundreds of news accounts missed a deeper and more personal story of conflict at the highest levels of government. For months, the military brass tried to box in and manipulate the young Democratic president with no military experience. Finally, he asserted his authority as commander-in-chief to dress down his commanders and impose his will.”

In the End

After the research was done and Alter had time to step back and assess Barack Obama as a man and leader, he says:

“I like him. He’s smart, thoughtful, capable, and really a decent guy who has done some things right and some things wrong. Like others, I thought his silver tongue would have been enough for him to ace communication with the American people once in office. He surprised everyone, for in this first year he really failed to connect with his biggest supporters — the American middle class.”

The task that Obama did ace, Alter believes, is being an executive leader — another area where he had no experience prior to taking office.

Alter said he also credits Obama with having an incredibly focused discipline, which he describes in Chapter 9 as his Zen Temperament.

“Temperament is different than having a winning personality, for that denotes a particular mixture of ease, poise, and good cheer,” Alter explains. “Obama’s cool, wry temperament has a mellow yet restless cast, a peculiar mix of calm, confidence, and curiosity.”

What does the future hold for the current president?

As for whether Obama will win re-election, Alter said even Obama said it was too soon to tell.

“Health care was a big win for Obama,” Alter says. “None of his advisors wanted him to go for it, but he insisted and in the end he won. While he lost his connection with the American people, he has a wonderful ability to reinvent himself. So time will tell.”

Read Jonathan Alter’s Tips for Entrepreneurs.

Jonathan Alter Takes Entrepreneurs Inside the Oval Office

Inside Obama’s White House

Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise, spent months in Washington, DC last year interviewing 200 Obama observers working inside and outside of the government. He wanted to understand what the President was like — from the meetings he held in the Oval Office to his interactions on the basketball court, and more.

In the book, Alter shares tales of Obama preventing a fistfight involving a Congressman, cursing leaks, playfully trash-talking his advisors, and joking about some taboo topics. Ultimately, Alter found Obama to be an authentic, demanding, unsentimental, and sometimes over-confident leader.

“He adapted to the presidency with ease, and put more points on the board than he is given credit for,” Alter explains. “But he also neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry public.”

Following are some tips Alter says he gleaned from covering the Obama White House:

Perhaps you’d like to take a page from Obama’s playbook?

1. Don’t ‘Re-Litigate’ Decisions

Obama saves crucial time by not revisiting decisions he has already made unless there is new evidence to be introduced. “You’re relitigating” is a real insult from him.

2. Call on the Junior People in Meetings

Obama uses a Socratic dialogue and makes sure to ask questions to the subject experts, not just senior officials. He doesn’t have much use for wallflowers. If you don’t contribute, you’re not likely to be invited back.

3. Strip Emotion Out of the Equation

This works well to improve the odds of a sound, dispassionate decision behind closed doors. Unfortunately for Obama, he fails to re-introduce emotion into his sales job, which hampers his persuasiveness in the public part of the job.

Jonathan Alter’s Tips on How to Write a Bestselling Book

We also picked the author’s brain on the top three tips entrepreneurs can integrate into their strategy to sell a bestselling book. He said:

1. Research, Research, Research

2. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

3. Sell, Sell, Sell

He’s not kidding

When Alter began writing his 2006 book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, he went through an equally intensive process as he did when researching The Promise.

Again, he posed three questions that he was determined to answer in the course of his research: What turns a person into a leader? What is the relationship between being a great personality and a great president? What enables one person to lead when others—perhaps more intelligent or experienced—fail to rise to the occasion?

It helps, he insists, to have a passion for your topic.

A history buff since he was a young child in Chicago (his mother used to bake a cake on February 12 so he could celebrate Lincoln’s birthday), Alter has covered the last six presidential campaigns for Newsweek and has won countless awards for his insightful columns and political reporting. In 1999, while working on a segment for the TODAY show, the idea for the FDR book came to him.

“We were asking the ‘what if’ questions of the 20th century: What if John F. Kennedy had put up the bubble top on his convertible that afternoon on November 22, 1963? What if Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s car hadn’t slowed down for a turn in the road, enabling an assassin to shoot Ferdinand and his pregnant wife on June 28, 1914; would World War I have started? What if, on February 15, 1933, one of the five shots fired in Miami by Giuseppe Zangara had killed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who was to become known as the best president of the 20th century?”

The search for answers to that third question sent Alter, 48, to the stacks of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, to research the period between the campaign of 1932 and the end of Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office.

It turned out there was a lot written about Roosevelt’s life and the New Deal, but never before had anyone focused too intently on this pivotal year. So, Alter began digging.

He leafed through hundreds of newspapers from the 1930s and read every magazine and diary he could get his hands on. The Internet also proved to be a useful tool, and he discovered more than 100 books from the time period, many of which had been out of print for decades.

The books, about $5 each, arrived carefully wrapped in brown paper and Alter devoured each one. Soon, the Chicago boy who graduated from Harvard with honors in 1979, landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. The result was the 432-page bestselling book.

Bringing history to life

This slice of American history comes to life as a series of short, engaging chapters that are grouped chronologically: “Lightweight Steel” is about the people and events that led Roosevelt to the White House; “The Ascent” documents the 1932 campaign, and how FDR nearly lost the Democratic nomination; “The Crisis” discusses the trials the president faced during the winter of 1933, including his near assassination in Miami; and “The Hundred Days” is the grand finale that shows how FDR moved America from one of its lowest points in history into the New Deal.

Alter says one of FDR’s greatest accomplishments was that he redefined the purpose of government: Is it to help the rich stay that way? Or is it to help all Americans, especially those in need?

“Being that he was brought up an aristocrat, the elite in the country hoped he’d not only keep them rich, but help them get wealthier,” Alter says. “But Roosevelt believed that the United States Government had a responsibility to people in need – especially when the country was in the ‘hurricanes of despair,’ such as during the Depression or after a natural disaster. That belief continues to be part of the American way.”

Alter points to the days after Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans: “We didn’t ask if the president should come to the aid of the people. We asked if he was sending in the aid fast enough. Before Roosevelt, the country would have considered it the responsibility of the local government in Louisiana to clean up the mess.”

On a personal note

While writing the book about FDR, Alter faced his own personal hurricane. In 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and a stem-cell transplant. Today, he is in remission. In fact, he wrote a Newsweek cover story about his battle in April 2007 (read that article here.)

“It was incredibly helpful to me to have spent so much time reading about how Roosevelt dealt with polio,” Alter related. “His courage inspired me to overcome my own illness. It’s amazing how everything is connected.”

Buy The Defining Moment here.

Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.”

– J.K. Rowling

As each woman realizes her power, she transforms the world.”

– Patrice Wynne, WomanSpirit Sourcebook

Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

– Brian Tracy

A lot of people have ideas, but few decide to do something about them now. Not next week. But today.”

– Nolan Bushnell, founder, Atari

Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

– Christopher Robin to Pooh

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success. A whole, clear, glorious life lies before you. Achieve! Achieve!”

– Andrew Carnegie

Happiness is an attitude. We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.”

– Francesca Reigle

Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”

– Leon Joseph Suenens

Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become.”

– Steve Jobs

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Part of your destiny is to live in the zone of maximum satisfaction.”

– Martha Beck

Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours.”

– Noela Evans

History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

– John F. Kennedy

We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

– General Omar Bradley

Don’t follow, lead. Don’t copy, create. Don’t start, finish. Don’t sit still, move. Don’t fit in, stand out. Don’t sit quietly, speak up. (Not all the time, sure, but more often.)”

– Seth Godin

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

– Jack Kerouac

Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, ‘Make Me Feel Important.’ Not only will you succeed in sales, you will succeed in life.”

– Mary Kay Ash

If you would create something,
 you must be something.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Remove those ‘I want you to like me’ stickers from your forehead
and, instead, place them where they truly will do the most good—on your mirror.”

– Susan Jeffers

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

– William Shakespeare

Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation that indicate opportunities for success.”

– Peter F. Drucker

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

– Seneca

Treat the attainment of happiness in the same way an entrepreneur would approach building a business — with a vision, plan, goals, and a systematic approach.”

– Ted Leonsis

Destiny is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

– William Jennings Bryan

We never know how high we are
 till we are called to rise;
 And then, if we are true to plan,
 Our statures touch the skies.”

– Emily Dickinson

If you want to be busy, keep trying to be perfect. If you want to be happy, focus on making a difference.”

– Lisa Earle McLeod

The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”

– Bruce Lee

I can’t go back to yesterday—because I was a different person then.”

– Lewis Carroll

You take your life in your own hands, and what happens?
 A terrible thing: no one to blame.”

– Erica Jong

The best hobbies are the ones that take us furthest from our primary occupation.”

– Dr. Evelyn Vogel, Dexter

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

– T.S. Eliot

I have spent a good part of my life convincing people that a blank sheet of paper is the greatest opportunity in the world, and not frightening at all.”

– Marty Skler, executive vp, Walt Disney Imagineering

We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

– General Omar Bradley

Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

– Benjamin Disraeli

Speaking more than one language is no longer just an asset in today’s job market; it is a requirement.”

– Tom Adams, CEO, Rosetta Stone

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

– Mark Twain

Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.”

– Albert Einstein

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

– Joseph Campbell

Things don’t change. You change your way of looking, that’s all.”

– Carlos Castaneda

It is to no purpose to turn away from the real nature of the affair because the honor of its elements excites repugnance.

– Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I don’t do very well without fear. There needs to be a part of me saying, ‘That’s going to fail,’ so I can prove myself wrong.”

– Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

– Winston Churchill

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

– Audre Lorde

Remember that it’s okay to ask for help when you’re stumped, because sometimes you really can’t be expected to handle everything alone.”

– Martha Beck

The great use of life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”

– William James

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

– William Butler Yeats

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court justice

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,
 what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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