Barack Obama graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. After serving on the Illinois State Senate, he was elected a U.S. senator representing Illinois in 2004. He went on to be the 44th president of the United States, and the first African American to serve in the office. First elected to the presidency in 2008, he won a second term in 2012. He is recognised globally for his leadership skills and won the Nobel Peace prize in 2009. So, what can we learn from Barack Obama’s leadership?
Listen to your people
Not many people know that throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he would read ten letters from ordinary American citizens every evening. He did this for all eight years. His logic was simple, he wanted to ensure that the voices from society would be heard within the ‘bubble’ of the White House. He said:
“I would end every night reading these ten letters. It made the numbers and the policies very concrete and very specific. And I was reminded that the choices we were making were affecting millions of people. I found that to be very useful. I think every organization needs to have some feedback mechanism to break through the bubble. You have to make sure that you keep hearing the voices from the outside.”
This is one of the most important lessons that Barack Obama now teaches to the young leaders who attend the training programs at the Obama Foundation. Many leaders and organisations fall into the trap of not being able to see beyond their own thinking. Many employees feel like their leaders have no idea what their pain points are and what they actually need help with and often role their eyes whenever a new initiative designed to “help” is rolled out. By actually listening to those on the ground, it’s a lot easier to make sure your leadership is effective.
Find common ground
One of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s presidency was the need to find common ground and work with people who on the face of it seemingly had opposing views and often irreconcilable differences. However, he always seemed to manage to get both sides working together for the greater good and found it important to engage with those who have differing views. He has said:
“We live in a time where there is a big contest of ideas. We see the world as there is us and there is them. But ultimately the dream of a parent for their children in Vietnam isn’t fundamentally different to one in Australia. So many of the things we see in our politics and in conflicts within and between countries arise from differences in race, religion, gender or sexuality—all those things that say I am better than you because of my genetic predisposition or the family I was born into. And it does a lot of damage…There are certain core values that we should apply to everyone, regardless of what they look like or how they worship, or the station to which they are born. Societies work better when everybody has a voice.”
This is something I can relate to personally having worked across 6 continents and 70+ countries. People always ask me about cultural difference, and the truth is, regardless of background there is so much more that we have in common than divides us. Every parent wants their children to be healthy and to get good grades and go on to great things. Everyone wants to provide for their family. Everyone wants to be recognised for good work and be provided with opportunities to excel. These are all universal truths. Simply going in to a situation with this mindset can often lead to positive outcomes as opposed to going in with a mindset that the other person is difficult and different to you.
There is more to life than work
Barack Obama has always prioritised his family, and actively encouraged his staff to do the same thing. After all, when you are on your death bed, what are you going to look back on? Staying back late to deliver a great report or memories of your loved ones? Barack Obama said:
“When I am on my deathbed, and I am thinking back on my life, I am absolutely certain that the thing I will be thinking about is holding my daughters’ hands and taking them to the park. It will not be some speech I gave or some legislation that I passed. I am positive about that. And so, if you keep that in mind, then you have to invest accordingly.” “It’s always a challenge. I have a lot of young staff now who are starting families. And what I say to them is: Look, you have to invest in this, what is probably your most important project, at least as much as you do in whatever it is that you get paid to do.”
This is an important reminder to all of us. Many of us are so often so focused on earning a pay rise or our next promotion that it is easy to lose sight of what is important. The message coming from someone as busy and accomplished as Barack Obama speaks volumes and should enable all of us to take stock and find perspective as to what truly matters.
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