Saturday, May 9, 2009

Barack Obama's Lessons on Leadership

With the world now scrutinizing his every move, President Obama continues to carry himself in the self-assured manner for which he is known. He has displayed the aura and demeanor of a leader since day one of his campaign, and has exhibited powerful lessons on leadership which have been exemplary. This article touches upon those lessons and the virtues that effective leaders must uphold.


The presidential election was not won by playing the status quo game of politics. It was won based upon the fervent articulation of a vision which was intertwined with the visions that Americans have for their lives and their children's lives. It was a vision which showed that President Obama was able to recognize, appreciate, and understand the needs of his followers. He knew that the American people had lost trust in the country's leadership; his vision spoke to restoring it. He knew the American people were overcome by a tidal wave of hopelessness that was causing many to drown in despair; his vision offered hope. Every leader must have a vision which offers tangible benefits for those that they lead.


According to John C. Maxwell, one of the nation's foremost authorities on leadership and author of Leadership 101, leaders don't delegate; they empower people. When you empower people, you work with and through people. You enable others to reach the highest levels in their personal and professional development. The main difference between management and leadership is that leadership is about influencing people to follow, while management focuses on maintaining systems and processes.

Faced with a daunting list of tasks including the ending of a war, tangled foreign policies, fragile international relations, mounting health care concerns, and a weakening economy on the verge of collapse, President Obama expressed early on the importance of not only hiring, but empowering the right people (i.e., most qualified). He knows that his brilliance must reflect on others, who in turn will reflect their brilliance upon him. This is said to be the best collection of brilliant minds ever assembled for a White House administration that's dedicated to creating plans, finding solutions, and managing the details of bringing President Obama's vision for America to life. Leaders must employ the same strategy and empower the right people.


On this subject of character Maxwell writes: There are three qualities that a leader must exemplify to build trust: competence, connection, and character. Character is the only effective bulwark against internal and external forces that lead to a country's disintegration or collapse. Standing up for your beliefs in the face of adversity shows tremendous character. It's often when true character - or lack there of - is revealed. While you can assign someone to a leadership position, you can not assign trustworthiness. That has to be earned over time and through the demonstration of character that's consistent of a true leader.


All leaders should have a message - a message they deliver consistently. In public relations the primary emphasis is on the development and consistent delivery of the message. Good PR entails and thrives upon positive communications and interactions between a person, organization, or company and the public on whom its success or failure depends.

Effective leaders establish a personal relationship between the message and their target audience. In other words, they make sure their individual followers care enough about that message so they are emotionally influenced to respond it. President Obama's successful influence is due in large part to this basic PR tenet.


Leaders also thrive on expectations and know how to prioritize in terms of importance and urgency. Mark McKinnon, a consultant who worked for a time for Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican opponent in the presidential election was quoted as saying: "People are going to give Obama more time than they would any other new president because they know he is dealing with unprecedented challenges. The economic crisis President-elect Obama faces may in some ways help him - it is taking some of the helium out of what would otherwise be stratospheric expectations."

After being in office less than two weeks he won House approval for an $819 billion stimulus plan to aid the nation's ailing economy "with no time to spare," and signed his first bill into law, The Lilly Ledbetter Pay Restoration Act which is a new law that makes it easier for employees to sue their employers for discrimination in paying them and effectively nullifies the legal limitations.

"It is fitting that the very first bill that I sign -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act -- that it is upholding one of this nation's founding principles: that we are all created equal, and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness," Obama said upon signing.


Words like integrity, values, ethics, responsibility, and principles belong to the lexicon of effective leaders who choose their words felicitously. They are aware of the influence that their messages, demeanor, and actions communicate. When President Obama was seen "dusting off his shoulders" while campaigning against Hillary Clinton and "exchanging pounds" with his wife, he subtly communicated his blackness to both whites and blacks.

Taken out of context or ill-timed they would not have registered as positively, but after then Senator Obama established himself as the front-runner for the presidency and a bona fide leader, these two little gestures received big reactions and cemented his status as a politician with personality. It also illustrated his emotional intelligence (awareness of how others feel) and tacit knowledge (street smarts) which have been intangible traits of the greatest leaders.


Great leaders have a profound reverence for their role. They don't revel in power, but in their ability to affect change. They are possessed and obsessed with their greatest responsibility: fulfilling the requirements for success in their every endeavor. They know that their success is not their own, but the success of their followers. Yes, being a leader is a difficult task in which your effectiveness is measured by the results you get, and your legacy is determined in the aftermath of your reign. President Obama summed it up in his inauguration speech which I will use to sum up this article:

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

Gian Fiero is a seasoned educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development and music/entertainment industry operations. He is affiliated with San Francisco State University as an adjunct professor and the United States Small Business Administration (SBA) where he conducts monthly workshops on topics such as career planning, public relations, and personal growth.


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