When Barack Obama participated in an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit back in 2012, he was taking an unprecedented presidential step in terms of accessibility and transparency, not to mention digital savvy.
It went OK, overall, but according to leadership and social media expert Charlene Li, Obama’s decision to completely ignore all questions about the legalization of marijuana (and there were many) was a failure of communication and transparency that could have been handled much, much better.
These aspects of leadership are paramount in Li's new book The Engaged Leader.
One of the most interesting examples of an engaged leader is when President [Barack] Obama decided to go onto Reddit as part of his presidential campaign in 2012. And he held what is called an "ask me anything" session. So they announced he was going to be on there and anybody could ask any question of Obama. What a great opportunity, right? And so he studiously sat there and responded to people and answered their questions. Except he didn’t. The most popular and most frequently asked question of Obama was what do you think of the legalization of marijuana? And it was very clear, so evident that Obama wanted to have nothing to do with that topic. He just studiously kept ignoring that topic and answering all the other questions that were coming up. So it’s interesting that you can ask me anything, but I may not necessarily answer you.
In many ways this was considered a very successful example of an engaged leader. Somebody who was willing to come on to Reddit and be able to answer all the questions that people were going to ask. But in reality that relationship was a bit tarnished for the people who were on that session because they quickly realized he’s not willing to truly engage in the spirit of this. He was going to answer only the questions that he wanted to. If they knew anything about the Reddit, audience they would have known that would have been the very top question that somebody was going to ask.
So as a leader when you’re in those situations, when you’re not ready, a better way to deal with that is to be very honest. I’m not prepared today to answer those questions. And if Obama had just said I hear all of you asking about the legalization of marijuana. I’m not ready to answer that question today and these are the reasons why. Clearly it’s important to some people and we will have a position on that at some point in the future. So as a leader, be clear you set expectations, but what you will engage on. You may have it worked out in your mind; it’s really important to tell the people who are really following you as a leader to tell them what can they expect in that engagement. How far will you go in that engagement to set those expectations early on so that they’re not disappointed.