By Martin Vogel
When Barack Obama is inaugurated as US President on Tuesday he will usher in not just a break with the eight years of the Bush Administration, but a distincitively modern humanistic style of leadership which has never been tested at this level. If his presidency is a success, it will have a profound impact on how leaders everywhere perceive themselves and how to be effective in the 21st Century.
One of Obama’s most striking chracteristics is the way he draws on ways of being as a leader which have been advocated as best practice for thirty years or more, but which he synthesises into a style which seems strikingly authentic and demonstrably impactful. He comes across as a man who is grounded, at ease with himself, totally focussed, and able to connect with people with integrity.
Reading about Obama in the days after his election victory, I was struck repeatedly by stories which marked him out as someone who is practised in active listening. This is a means of giving focussed attention to people who are talking to you and of validating what they say by showing that you have heard their message. On paper, this sounds simply like another way to describe conversation. But, in fact, active listening disrupts the rhythms of normal discourse in which, so often, we do not hear what others say to us but simply use the pause in their words to inject our own input into the conversation. Active listening honours people with the space to express themselves and confers the respect which flows from being understood. I was introduced to active listening in my training as a coach and will for ever be trying to perfect the technique. For Barack Obama, it is his modus operandi.
There are many examples to be found in a lengthy biographical article by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. He describes how Obama cut his teeth as a community organiser in Chicago by “spending hours with individuals at a time to hear the full story of their lives”. As a student, Obama became the first black President of the Harvard Law Review thanks in part to the way he engendered the trust of conservatives:
“They did not agree with him on the issues, but they were impressed that he truly listened to them, that he seemed to take them seriously. On one occasion, he made a speech defending affirmative action that effectively articulated the objections to it. Rightwingers believed Obama had shown them deep understanding and respect.”
He went on to teach law at the University of Chicago where students warmed to his ability to present controversial subjects like race without “thrusting his own beliefs on them.” According to his professor at the university, Douglas Baird:
“He always listens, and he might not agree with you, but you never felt he was brushing you off.”
This is a style Obama has carried with him into political life. There’s a telling description in Freedland’s piece of how the Senator for Illinois would formulate policy:
“He would ask his policy advisers to convene the top experts in a given field for a dinner. Obama would make introductory remarks, then sit back and listen — hard. Similarly, when convening his own staff for a key decision, he might stretch out on a couch on his office, his eyes closed, listening. According to one account, ‘he asked everybody in the room to take turns sharing their advice, insisting on the participation of even his most quiet, junior staffers’. He particularly encouraged internal argument among his advisers, thrashing out both sides of an argument.”
This approach evokes the methods advocated by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. Writing in 1990, Senge saw the challenge of leadership as being to generate a learning culture which could respond flexibly and adaptively to rapid change. Central to his ideas was the need to foster dialogue as well as discussion: dialogue being “the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’.” Senge recognised that there were also times when discussion was appropriate: when participants should argue clearly for their position. But it was through dialogue that learning cultures would access a collective, larger intelligence.
The account of Obama’s style with his senatorial team displays sensitivity to these insights. And some of his comments and decisions since becoming elected President last November suggest every commitment to continue in this vein. He has assembled around him a cabinet of politicians drawn from among his allies and rivals alike. Many hold views which are notably different from his own and from each other’s. It’s precisely this sense of difference on which he’s relying to find his own effectiveness as a leader. On announcing the appointment of his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, and the retention of George Bush’s Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, Obama told reporters:
“One of the dangers in the White House, in my reading of history, is that you can get wrapped up in group-think. There is no discussion and no dissenting views… I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and opinions. I think that’s how the best decisions are made.”
It’s difficult to overstate the exceptional nature of these leadership qualities – particularly when compared with the generality of Western politicians, who tend to be preoccupied with short term presentational issues and adherence to a consistent line among the team. So it was interesting to come across an article from the Bangkok Post by a writer called Nash Siamwalla, who was a close contemporary of Obama at Harvard Law School. He articulated something of the excitement that the prospect of Obama’s presidency is generating around the world, and explained it from a Buddhist perspective:
“Looking at Obama’s historic campaign, what strikes us most is how consistently mindful this candidate has been. By mindfulness, Buddhism refers to the ability to be totally aware of the nature of things as they are, in the present moment, without pre-formed judgment or emotional partiality.
“Obama, as we saw, was always able to remain calm and composed in any situation. He was always mindful of his thoughts, his words and his deeds. He never showed hate or anger. The only time he allowed himself to show his human side is only when he talked passionately about the well-being of his family.
“Even when the political process got heated with the opponent’s campaign throwing aggressive comments at him, Obama refused to retaliate in a similar manner. Repeatedly, he made it clear he would not take, in his own words, ‘the low road.’”
My own view is that Obama’s extraordinary calm and composure are manifestations of having travelled a disciplined, reflective journey through which he has made sense of his values and his life’s purpose. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he describes settling into an austere routine – involving reflective journalling and three-mile runs every day – shortly after graduating in his early twenties. By all accounts, he has maintained this lifestyle ever since. As a senator in Washington, he was famously unclubbable, living ascetically during the week and rushing home to Chicago each weekend to return to his wife and daughters.
Dreams from My Father itself is an account of his reflective journey. It’s a work of great candour, such as we are not used to seeing in politicians of high office. It describes the complex interplay between his mixed race heritage and his growing identification with the African-American community. He expresses a sense of loss at not having shared the experience of his black brethren in the inner-cities, but draws on his own experience of hardship and the moral values handed down by his parents to make his own identification with the downtrodden.
What emerges is a man who has unusual clarity about where he has come from and how he draws on that as a leader today. I think this explains how he was able to stay so firmly on course when opponents tried to dredge up embarrassing vignettes from his past. Instead of dissembling, he could locate such incidents in the narrative of his life and explain their contribution to the man he is now. This kind of authenticity is the hallmark of precisely the kind of leadership that the writers Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones say is needed to inspire people in contemporary culture.
Obama is at his strongest when he points to his ordinary failings as a human. Take this from his acceptance speech the night he was elected:
“There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”
That he takes office at a time when the United States – and the Western world more generally – faces its gravest crisis in decades is no coincidence. The time for platidudinous promises and easy certainties has passed and Obama marks a break with these. He offers himself, his seriousness of purpose, and his commitment to listen to all comers. If his style fares well in office, he will define what it means to be a leader for a generation.
Image courtesy Joe Crimmings.