Leadership is not easy. It has the power to make or break a nation, define a company’s future and help people become the best version of themselves in difficult times. 

But what makes for a good leader? One of the world’s best known political leaders is former US President Barack Obama, whose presidential memoir, A Promised Land was published recently. Obama has some of the top leadership qualities for success: great decision-making, good communication and empathy. Let’s look at some examples of Obama’s leadership from his eight years as president that inspire us at Harappa. 

Making Tough Decisions

One of Obama’s top leadership traits was his ability to make difficult decisions. His mantra was to not look for the “perfect solution” but to make well-thought-out and considered decisions. He studied the facts, weighed the risks, consulted his team and then made an informed decision. 

Obama’s decision-making prowess was put to test soon after he took office. Faced with an economy in freefall and a high rate of unemployment, he chose to put banks through ‘stress tests’. In other words, he wanted to see if the largest American banks had the capital to survive an even worse economy. 

It was a tough call and he had to bring everyone on board. Obama called a meeting with his economic team, and after a grueling discussion, he knew what his decision would be: to go ahead with the stress tests. “We spent a long, exhausting day hearing from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about how the stress tests were going, hashing out various alternatives…,” he says. 

This process of rigorous research and collaboration helped the former US President come to several difficult but successful decisions. He says it gave him the satisfaction of knowing that no matter how things turned out, he had done his best. 

One of Obama’s toughest decisions was the raid to take out Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. In his memoir, he writes in gripping detail about the work that went into putting the operation together. He describes the months of due diligence and investigation that went into identifying bin Laden. Countless meetings were held, all risks were evaluated, and every contingency was played out. 

As difficult as this decision was, Obama felt that the process of intense research and collaboration had left him feeling “fully prepared and fully confident” about his final decision. “It was an operation rife with uncertainty and risk. So, I ran a tight process. I trusted my team. I listened to every voice in the room. I gave myself space to think. And then I made a decision that reflected my own personal sense of what was right,” he says.

“While I couldn’t guarantee the outcome, I was confident in making the decision.”

Communication

If there was one skill Obama mastered as a leader, it was to communicate effectively. His techniques were simple. For instance, he always smiled during public addresses—unless the address called for seriousness—and used strong, open gestures to illustrate his point. When talking in the first person, he chose “we” instead of “I” to give people a sense of involvement in important decisions. 

In his farewell speech, while highlighting some of his achievements, Obama used this technique generously. “In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement…,” he said.  

Another classic example is his campaign slogan, ‘Yes, we can!’ which he also weaved into the conclusion of his farewell speech. “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours… Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can.”

In both cases, the use of ‘we’ not only gave people a sense of unity but also became a symbol of hope. 

Another time-tested communication tool that Obama used was personal anecdotes. One of his first memorable speeches, which he delivered in 2004 as a Senate candidate, was interspersed with stories of his background. 

“Tonight is a particular honor for me because let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he said in the opening of the address. He then went on to illustrate how America was indeed a land of opportunity, where someone with as humble and varied a background as his, could live their dreams. To underline his point, he ended his story with the words, “and in no other country on Earth is my story even possible”.

Conclusion

The essence of Obama’s leadership lies in the fact that he can make others connect and engage with him, thereby building a sense of trust. That is perhaps why even four years after his final term in office, he continues to have something that leaders dream of—a sway over people across party lines, national borders, race and community.  

(Picture credit: Fogster via Wikimedia Commons)

Shreya Sengupta is a Copy Desk Manager at Harappa Education. A media and publishing professional, she loves her dog, all things food, dancing, and travelling (not in any particular order).


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