Obama offers leadership lessons

THE PRESIDENTIAL inauguration last week has reinvigorated the country with renewed hope, optimism and energy. The nation’s mood seems lifted. Like many others, I am struck by the leadership lessons our new president has already demonstrated, and can only imagine what lessons lie ahead.

As an executive coach, it’s my mission to teach, coach and foster “best practice” leadership with my clients. Thankfully, we all have a new role model for exemplary leadership in the new commander in chief.

What can we learn about leadership from Barack Obama? While there are many lessons, here are a few that I suggest business leaders take note of:

Don’t underestimate the power of motivated people. Obama has faith in the American people (as business leaders need to have faith in their people) and did a masterful job in getting them engaged and productive. Obama executed a record-shattering, grass-roots campaign by taking it to the ultimate end user — the people. To get commitment, in politics or business, leaders must first involve and engage people.

Inspire vision. We are hungry for leaders who are forward looking and focused on opportunities for positive change. While mindful of the lessons of the past, Obama clearly communicated his forward focus with, “Yes we can!” Much more inspiring than leading by fear, gloom and doom. Leaders such as Obama inspire us to bring the best of ourselves forward by speaking to our highest selves.

Surround yourself with talent, including those with diverse viewpoints. Obama has assembled an experienced bipartisan team. He didn’t simply choose “yes men,” or those who would mimic his style, beliefs or strengths. According to a recent Time magazine interview, Obama expects people to “challenge him when they think he is wrong.” Healthy debate is critical for sound decision making whether in business or running the country.

Set clear expectations. Obama has communicated to his team that he expects them to “respect, empower and include” others. When egos and “kingdoms” plague teams, performance suffers. Obama gets this. He was quoted in Time, saying, “I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and game-playing, and I send that message very clearly. … If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.” Well said!

Listen well before deciding. Obama is known for asking, “What’s on your mind?” He conveys he is open to the influence of others. He seems easy to talk to. Warren Buffett credits Obama as a “listener” who can “extract from other people a lot of information and take the best of it.”

Stay connected and be authentic. We can relate to the president — as a dad who takes his kids out on Halloween or shoots hoops with his buddies. He doesn’t hide away in the inner sanctums. Senior business leaders can learn here; hiding out in the ivory tower or penthouse office isolates you and sends a message to people that you aren’t one of them.

Foster collaboration. Obama works toward finding the “win-win” solution. Given his community-organizer background, we can learn from his ability to foster dialogue and bring together diverse viewpoints toward a common vision.

Be the calm in the storm. Emotionally intelligent leaders such as Obama are regarded as predictable, stable and reliable in the eyes of followers. It reassures us. We want leaders we can rely on to be the rudder in a storm.

Model what you want. He doesn’t talk “family values” — he lives them. Likewise, he doesn’t simply talk “community service,” he lives it by deeds (painting a teen center on Martin Luther King Day). He models responsibility and action, thereby creating an environment that makes people want to be engaged. During his campaign, many states had over a million knocks on doors on Election Day by devoted Obama volunteers — now that’s what I call getting people engaged. Imagine the possibilities and implications here for business.

And now the real work begins. Hopefully we can keep learning from him.