Spiritual Leadership: The Case of Barack Obama Part 1

The unfolding spiritual development of a future US President

Posted Jun 20, 2011

Obama's Autobiography

The conformist stage of spiritual development satisfies a powerful human urge to belong in a group. The next, individual stage follows a different drive: to think, speak, act and take responsibility for oneself. The ensuing integration stage involves thinking, speaking and acting for yourself and for everybody else. This altruistic type of motivation emerges when insight dawns that human beings are all united as kin and belong to each other.

I read the autobiography of Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, while searching for an example of someone in transition between the individual and the integration stages. I used his story in, The Psychology of Spirituality.

Obama's public biography
Facts about Barack Obama are on record. His mother, Ann, was a white American of European descent. Obama senior came to Hawaii on a student scholarship in 1960. Barack junior was born on 4th August 1961. His parents separated and divorced when he was two. Barack senior returned to Kenya and saw his son only once more, for a month on a return visit nine years later.

Barack's mother then married an Indonesian student, also attending college in Hawaii. In 1967, all Indonesian students were recalled so, from age six to ten, Barack attended local schools in Jakarta and received additional tuition daily from his mother. In 1971, he returned to Hawaii. Separated from his mother, living with his white maternal grandparents, he attended high school there until graduation.

Columbia University, NYC

In 1979, he went to college in Los Angeles, transferring to Columbia University in New York in 1981, graduating in 1983. He was a researcher at the Business International Corporation and the NY Public Interest Research Group. In June 1985, he moved to Chicago to be director of the Developing Communities Project on the city's far South Side. He worked as a community organizer until May 1988, then went to Harvard Law School. Gaining his doctorate, Obama worked as a civil rights lawyer from 1991 until entering politics in 1997. He was elected to the US Senate in 2004, becoming the 44th US President in January 2009.

His spiritual journey
Obama describes his book as, "A record of a personal, interior journey - a boy's search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American". This defines it as a spiritual quest: his search, both deep within himself and externally into his origins, for an authentic and complete sense of identity - his true self - and the relationship of that self to other people.

The account begins when an aunt calls from Nairobi in 1982, informing him of his father's death in a car wreck. Obama starts to reflect that he grew up with "more of a myth than a man" as a father. He had barely before registered that his father was "black as pitch", while his mother was "white as milk". His own black skin, though, had become the focus of many doubts and questions about his personal identity, his future and mission in life.

His father, "Remained something unknown, something volatile and vaguely threatening", like his own dark Jungian shadow. He knew about several half-brothers and a half-sister living in Africa. He had also heard his father's stories of African tribes that still required a boy to prove himself by killing a lion. As a schoolboy, he knew intuitively that he must explore this part of himself; but first, like most adolescents, he experimented with other, partial identities first.

Obama made a conscious decision to become part of the world of basketball. He liked the idea that, "Respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was". Later, though, he admitted that he had been exploring a misrepresentation of black male adolescence. Comparing himself with surfers, football players and rock guitarists, he describes the development of a mask to wear in public: "Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty". At least on the basketball court, he could find, "A community of sorts, with an inner life all its own".

Joining this group was a typical response to his unhappy predicament, but he was never fully committed to it, recognizing that he and his peers were confused and angry; that this was how they dealt with their emotional pain. He was not just black skinned. He was, after all, living with white relatives, people he loved; so he understood that his situation was complicated. One day, Obama had an important and powerful revelation: "I knew for the first time that I was utterly alone".

Speaking with his true voice
At college in Los Angeles, although he spent time with other black students, Obama remained self-contained. Then, something remarkable happened!

Magic at the Mike

At nineteen, he was at a rally supporting the African National Congress of South Africa, a country still in the grip of apartheid before Nelson Mandela's release. Asked to make a brief speech, he found himself unexpectedly inspired. Mounting the stage, unprepared, reaching the microphone, he said:

"There is a struggle going on. It's happening an ocean away. But it's a struggle that touches each and every one of us... Whether we know it or not... Whether we want it or not... A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No - it's a harder choice than that. It's a choice between dignity and servitude... Between fairness and injustice... Between commitment and indifference... A choice between right and wrong."

He is already showing an intuitive and prophetic grasp of humanity's seamless interconnectedness, the principle of universality. He is also accurately depicting his own crisis, listing the choices he has still to make. However, with friends the same day, he tried disowning the speech.Obama wanted to deny what was clear to others, that he had spoken from the heart with his true voice, that he cared, and that he believed in a shared and universal reality. Inner struggle would follow, but this was irreversible. His leadership journey had begun.

Copyright Larry Culliford

Read Part 2 (Dreams) here soon.

*Based on a presentation at the International Thomas Merton Society's Twelfth Conference and General Meeting on June 11, 2011, at Lakeshore Campus, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, comparing Obama's spiritual development with that of Thomas Merton. For information about Merton (1915 - 1968) see www.merton.org and links. Larry is a former Chair of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama)