What we can learn from Obama’s leadership

By Mike Eldon

‘Yes we can,’ he told Americans. And they, together with millions more all over the world, listened. Not only did Barack Obama overcome the colour of his skin and the thinness of his wallet to ascend to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, but he handled himself in a remarkable way. At the time of his inauguration, and in anticipation of the avalanche of books that is likely to hit the bookstands on the great man’s leadership qualities, I thought I should get my oar in early.

He first came to prominence as a great communicator, when he mesmerised the 2004 Democratic Party Convention. Indeed, during this year’s presidential campaign Hillary Clinton sneered that all he’d ever done was to deliver that one speech. But as even hard-boiled political operatives observed the smooth way he built his campaign team from scratch and then managed it to victory, it was clear that despite hitherto untested as a leader, he had what it took… in spades. How he has handled the impressive transition has only reinforced our confidence in him.

I so clearly remember reading how effectively he ran the meetings of his high-powered campaign team, with focused and aligned energy. If one among the participants would go quiet for a while, Obama would quietly ask ‘What’s on your mind?’ For he assumed the reason for silence was not that the person had nothing to say, but that they were feeling uncomfortable about how the discussion was going. So, unthreateningly, having listened and looked around intently, having noticed the withdrawal, Obama would use his extraordinary emotional intelligence to navigate the reintegration.

Here’s a calm, confident fellow, as eloquent with the written as with the spoken word. (I loved reading his books, both for the thoughts they expressed and for the delightful language in which they were couched.) Here’s a man at ease with himself, someone who takes his work more seriously than he takes himself. Here’s a man with the strongest of family values, comfortable being married to a strong, accomplished woman.

Time, inevitably, made him their Person of the Year. In their profile of Obama, they marvelled at the many aspects that explain his success. In the interview with him he explained his philosophy of leadership. ‘I don’t think there’s some magic trick here,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve got a good nose for talent, so I hire really good people. And I’ve got a pretty healthy ego, so I’m not scared of hiring the smartest people, even when they’re smarter than me. I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and games playing, and I send that message very clearly. And so over time I think people start trusting each other, and they stay focused on mission, as opposed to personal ambition or grievance. If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.’

Then, Time tells us, Obama is a businesslike boss. ‘He expects people to challenge him when they think he is wrong and to back up their ideas with facts. He’s not a shouter – “Hollering at people isn’t usually that effective,” Obama explains – but if he thinks you’ve let him down, you’ll know it.’ He thinks people ‘generally want to do the right thing’, and ‘if you’re clear to them about what that right thing is, and if they see you doing the right thing, then that gives you some leverage’. During job interviews for his new team Obama emphasised cohesion. ‘He encourages debate,’ his senior adviser told the New York Times, ‘He doesn’t tolerate factionalism.’

Magic! Or rather not magic, however rare it is to achieve so fully what Obama consistently does. Forget the books. Forget even a whole column. All you need to follow is what I have just reproduced.        

Obama is the ultimate role model for great 21st century leadership. He is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses and has worked relentlessly to build and re-engineer himself, as he has moved from level to ever-higher level. He has done this while building a great team around him, one that complements what he has to offer.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed or scared by the enormity of the national challenges, instead of saying someone else must step forward, he did. He has confronted the tough issues, and in ways that won over those who were too timid or too antagonistic to his ideas. He was the first to say he wasn’t ready – but then you don’t get to choose the time, the time chooses you. And he’s already been telling us how much more there is to do, and how the real work starts now. Through it all we see how noble he is, and how he has ennobled us.

He has set up his seasoned, respected, bipartisan team. And he has told us what he and the team should be judged on, two years from now. The change he promised is already reasonably well defined. It is, Time thinks, ‘the nuts-and-bolts kind you can see and measure’. Obama himself tells us ‘it means a government that is not ideologically driven. It means a government that is competent. And it means a government, most importantly, that is focused day in, day out, on the needs and struggles, the hopes and dreams of ordinary people’.

Did I hear hope and dreams? Do I hear an assumption of win-win, based on trust, on the basis that generally people want to do the right thing? Have we left behind the leadership of exclusion, of enemies, of them-versus-us partisanship, of fear? Looks like it!

But who is this ‘we’? Is it just Americans? Is it the whole world? Are all leaders, whether political or corporate or other, about to reinvent themselves as mini-Obamas? Even here in Kenya? If only! But as leaders everywhere fumble with their new year’s resolutions, they could do worse, far worse, than pick out three things they’ll do more as Obama does them. Take your pick. They are so many glorious ones from among which to choose.