No matter how challenging a C-suite job may be, it is surely dwarfed by the pressures of the U.S. presidency. No matter how many vacations they take or how much they exercise, presidents seem to visibly age faster than other people; among the White House staff, there’s frequent talk of burnout leading to turnover. In her 2012 book “The Obamas,” New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor offers an unusually detailed account of how the Obamas tried to maintain a sense of balance even as they moved to Washington. They’ve maintained the same loyal network of friends, stuck to disciplined diet and exercise regimens, eschewed the Washington social scene to spend time with their children, and kept a raised eyebrow at some of the pomp and privilege that comes with the presidency. HBR asked Kantor what C-suite executives might learn from how the First Couple deals with one of the world’s most stressful jobs. Excerpts:
Your book contains rich detail on how hard the Obamas worked to preserve a sense of normalcy when they moved to the White House. Why was that so important to them?
I started covering the Obamas in 2007, so I watched their transformation. They very quickly went from being the sort of parents who dropped their kids off at school to being president and first lady. Their change in status was so extreme — normally in politics and in business, people rise slowly and pay their dues. When they got to Washington, they really tried to preserve as sense of normalcy, but that’s almost impossible in the White House, which is a combination museum, office, residence, and secure military compound. In the business world, even the most public CEO still has a place he or she can retreat to that’s out of the public eye. That’s not true for a president.
Today more executives avoid relocating their families when they change jobs, so we’re seeing more commuter marriages. In your book you note that until he moved to the White House, Obama had never lived full-time with his family.
That’s true — he’d commuted to Springfield and Washington as a state senator and U.S. senator, while the family stayed in Chicago. In fact, one of the most surprising things I found out while reporting the book was that Michelle Obama initially considered not moving to the White House in 2009 — she considered having their daughters finish out the school year in Chicago. To me that’s a story that shows both how naïve and how wise Michelle Obama was about the presidency. On the one hand, it was naïve to think the country would have accepted a commuter first lady. At the same time, it showed that even though Mrs. Obama was new to politics and to Washington, she instinctively knew that living in the White House was not going to be easy, and the demands on her family (including her children) were going to be enormous. While the business world does have the concept of the “corporate spouse” who may play an important role in social events, it’s still really unusual for a CEO’s children to become involved — they’re generally off the hook.
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In 2012, Sheryl Sandberg told a reporter she leaves her office every day at 5:30 pm to get home for dinner with her family, and it started a big debate over how executives set limits on their workdays. What did you observe about how Obama sets limits?
One of the details in my book that people react most strongly to is that the president has a strict 6:30 time for dinner with his family, and it’s pretty much inviolate. He’s willing to miss dinner twice a week, but that’s it. That’s very unusual for a president. It limits his fundraising trips to the West Coast. It limits his outreach to Congress. I’m not suggesting that he’s remiss for not doing those things—I’m only noting it’s an unusual approach. For CEOs, I think it raises the interesting question of how far you’re willing to go [in setting boundaries]. Especially in light of CEOs’ outsized pay packages, is it okay to say ‘If it’s after 6:30 pm, I can’t do that?’
Sheryl Sandberg also says that choosing the right spouse is the single most important career decision someone can make. Do you see Michelle as unusually vital to Barack Obama’s career?
I don’t think Barack Obama would be president without Michelle, for both practical and psychological reasons. The practical reason is that he was a newcomer to Chicago who needed to become not just a politician, but a black politician in a new city. He had an unusual background and no roots there. Michelle Obama provided those roots when they married. From a psychological perspective, Mrs. Obama always had a very elevated sense of who her husband was. She talked about how he was not like other politicians, and that influenced his own self-image.
You provide vivid descriptions of the First Lady gently teasing the president, of “puncturing” the pomp around him. Why is this dynamic important?
One of the dilemmas of being the spouse of someone who has a ton of responsibility—whether it’s a president or a CEO—is knowing when you support and console, and when you speak truth to power. When your spouse comes home, you don’t want to say ‘I really think you could have handled that meeting differently.’ But on the other hand, you can have tremendous influence and arguably a moral duty to use it, to prevent or fix problems where you can. We have a whole literature about presidential marriages—we know a lot about the Adams, the Roosevelts, the Clintons—but I’ve never seen research into CEO marriages, and how spouses influence CEO decision-making. That could be a fascinating area for research.
Last year was especially difficult for the Obama administration. When things aren’t going well, do you have the sense that the president puts in longer hours, or is he able to maintain a sense of balance and perspective?
It’s really hard to tell. Aides are constantly trying to present an image of the president as cool and unruffled by what’s going on around him. At the same time, there is a sense that he works incredibly hard—for instance, he’s known to pull all-nighters, especially when writing big speeches. The bigger question for me isn’t the workload but how presidents deal with the psychological pressure. The decisions they make are just so monumental, particularly during times of war and economic struggle. So many of us worry about having an outsized degree of anxiety about jobs where the stakes are relatively low; what can learn from people who’ve served in really high office?