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Business: President Obama and Transformative Leadership

Is President Obama a model of transformative leadership?

Over the past two years, we have seen what some have called a transformative demonstration of leadership. This process culminated on January 20th with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Whether or not you agree with his politics (and Prime Business Alert! is decidedly nonpartisan), you have to respect his journey and appreciate his leadership capabilities. You can also learn a great deal about effective leadership and sustained, high-level performance by studying his improbable and meteoric rise.

From humble beginnings, having to prevail over the dual "handicaps" of race and fatherlessness, and overcome two of the most formidable political forces in history (the Clintons and the Republican Party), President Obama showed us that a person with imagination, determination, and faith could surmount incalculable odds and rise to the highest and most powerful office in the world. During his entire candidacy, he exhibited the leadership qualities that led to this landmark achievement:

  • President Obama saw opportunity where others saw obstacles;
  • Saw solutions where others saw problems;
  • Hade confidence when others had doubt;
  • Had resolve when others wavered;
  • Was disciplined when others were lax;
  • Stayed calm when others panicked;
  • Had hope when others lost faith;
  • And, ultimately, he saw possibility where others saw none.

President Obama established several essential elements in his campaign. First, he affirmed his leadership by making clear who was in charge, what messages would be communicated, and his commitment to those messages. At the same time, he was open to ideas and willing to adapt when presented with a compelling reason to do so. Second, he set the psychology of his campaign, ensuring that it was positive, proactive, and focused. Third, he actively created a culture of integrity, openness, and determination that permeated throughout his campaign organization. These specific messages and the way in which he conveyed them are powerful lessons for you in your leadership role at your company.

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President Obama also convinced millions of individual Americans that they too could alter their own personal histories and futures. We saw the force of this message in interviews with African-Americans who lived through segregation and the civil-rights movement and in the voices of hope and possibility from young African-Americans who saw what was once inconceivable was now a reality and that if he could move mountains, so could they. And this message reverberated across racial age, gender, and ethnic lines. President Obama showed us that, in a world where the status quo had seemingly immovable inertia, change could happen. And in a world that often times seems to be spinning out of control, he gave many the courage to embrace the "audacity of hope."

This message of possibility and personal empowerment from President Obama moved people and caused an unstoppable groundswell of support that propelled him to the Presidency. This same message can empower your employees to achieve their own and your company's goals and take their performance, productivity, and profitability to a new level.

President Obama also showed us that disconnected individuals with a common vision could coalesce into a formidable force. His life and his words inspired millions of previously uninvolved Americans to enter the political arena and stand up for what they believed. But, despite what many people think, inspiration is not his greatest gift. President Obama's real strengths are not only to inspire, but also to inform and transform. He gave people the information and tools they needed to focus and direct their inspiration. And then he transformed that inspiration and information into action. By exploiting both low-tech (boots on the ground) and high-tech (the Internet) means, he created what was certainly the most potent political campaign in history.

As a leader, you can unite your corporate team in the same way. First, create a shared vision of what your team wants to accomplish. Making this a collaborative effort increases "buy in" and ownership. Second, give your team the knowledge they need to do their jobs individually and collectively to the best of their ability. Third, provide them with the resources to turn their inspiration and information into action.

President Obama now faces the most daunting test of his leadership skills as he attempts to forge a sense of unity, where others have tried and failed, in a political culture that has many political, economic, and cultural factions. Can he inspire, inform, and transform those who have fundamental disagreements with him? To do so, he will have to marshal all of his remarkable leadership skills. In this time of crisis, his oratory gifts can inspire all Americans to set aside small concerns and work together to overcome the current challenges at home and abroad. This ability involves framing divisive issues in terms that transcend specific ideologies and focus on larger universal themes. He began this process in his inaugural speech when he declared, "We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

The same kind of divergence of views can handicap a company as well. The ability to inspire your employees, rally them around a shared cause, demonstrate respect for all perspectives, and find common ground is an essential skill for providing leadership to a successful company.

President Obama's confident, calm, and commanding presence in these difficult times can inspire trust that he has America's best interests at heart despite policy differences. His noted respect for diverse viewpoints and willingness to listen to others can also encourage "buy in" from those less inclined to do so. And his thoughtful and far-reaching responses to issues that impact all Americans can convince even those who might be resistant to, at a minimum, give him a chance to prove himself right.

Similarly, a style of corporate leadership that is authoritative, yet empathic and trustworthy, can reduce the flames of conflict and encourage those with different ideas to be open to others' viewpoints and be willing to find compromise for the good of the individual and the company.

In the business world, there are profound lessons to be learned from studying President Obama's leadership capabilities. By applying his skills and strategies to your work, you can create your own transformative leadership experience that can help you and your company to achieve its goals.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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