In my last article I analysed Donald Trump’s ego state, describing him as a deeply insecure man who was formed by his unhappy childhood where he was bullied by his domineering father and neglected by his absent mother. Trump’s “I’m OK, You’re not OK” behaviour, I wrote, masks his “I’m not OK, You’re OK” interior; while his “controlling parent” style of leadership, always seeking to win at the expense of others, is actually that of a spoilt child.
This was in the context of Eric Berne’s and Thomas Harris’s Transactional Analysis frameworks, and now, as Trump’s successor has just been inaugurated, I wish to carry out a similar dive into the ego state of his predecessor, Barrack Obama. What a dramatic contrast! We’ve enjoyed many opportunities to observe and admire President Obama in action, and my respect for him has been greatly reinforced as I read his wonderful 706-page autobiography A Promised Land over the holidays.
In it Obama reveals himself as having the healthiest of ego states. At the family level he is a nurturing parent to his children, while from when they were young he has respected and reinforced the “adult” in them as he replied to their questions and listened to their views. He is also at ease playing with them as child-to-child. As for his relationship with his wife Michelle it is clearly one of adult-adult rather than parent-child. Between them all a sense of “I’m OK, You’re OK” prevails, leading to win-win all round – true role models for a happy family life.
What about Obama as the leader of America, the most powerful man in the world? What struck me repeatedly in the book was how solution-oriented this extraordinary man is, always working to develop a better America and a better world. But without being unrealistically Utopian, without allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. As he learned more about domestic and international politics, he accepted that he was dealing largely with politicians for whom life is all about manoeuvring through zero-sum games rather than win-win ones.
He writes with utmost self-awareness, honesty and humility (not least when sharing his feelings that he was not really worthy of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize), but his straightforward and balanced assessments of his life in the White House speak very much of an “I’m OK” self-esteem, coupled with a “You’re OK” mindset towards those around him in the White House. At all times he is “the adult in the room”, and yet refreshingly “the child within” is alive, as he jokes and plays basketball with his staff and – not least when most needed – lightens the atmosphere.
The epitome of emotional intelligence, he knows when to separate how he feels from how he behaves when dealing with those who have behaved irresponsibly and whom he would like to hammer but appreciates it won’t help resolve an issue or protect a challenging relationship. But when needed he does reveal his “stern parent”… also knowing how to help a subsequent healing.
Obama remains overwhelmingly calm – certainly externally and usually internally – always looking for ways to move a situation forward. Whatever decisions he makes, whatever the outcome, he fully appreciates that he will inevitably receive damning criticism from all and sundry, however ill-informed or ill-motivated. He will be accused of having done too much or too little, too soon or too late, but he takes it all in his stride, accepting that never mind not being able to please all the people all the time, as President of the United States you can hardly ever please anyone.
But he does his best, knowing that nothing will work out fully as intended, that there will always be unintended consequences, and hoping that the long term positive outcomes will somehow eventually speak for themselves.
By contrast to Trump, whose father played such a crucial role in his dysfunctional development, Obama had no relationship with his father. It was his anthropologist mother and her mother who were the dominant figures in forming the Barrack we know. He was exposed to multiple countries, cultures and religions from an early age and they nurtured the healthiest of values and aspirations in the boy.
I cannot end this article without imploring you to read Obama’s autobiography. It will inspire and uplift you, leaving you filled with admiration for how he coped with the scale, complexity and variety of challenges that a US president must handle 24/7. No wonder Trump failed as miserably as he did. And no wonder Obama’s legacy lives on.
Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership. [email protected]