Here are the leadership lessons you can learn from Barack Obama.
1. Leading through a crisis
When president Obama took office, the world was in the middle of a crisis (sound familiar?). Lehman Brothers had collapsed, and an international financial crisis had been sparked.
Obama quickly signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $831 billion recovery package. More than a decade of growth and job creation—the longest in American history—followed.
Similar to world leaders who are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic today Obama showed that, in a crisis, fast and decisive policy action is needed.
2. Being culturally sensitive
To win the presidency Obama had to pull together a coalition of voters from across America’s cultural divide.
Pew Research Center showed that although Republican John McCain in 2008 won 55% to Obama’s 43% of the white vote, president Obama dominated when it came to the black vote (95%), Latino vote (67%), and the Asian vote (62%).
Without the diversity of support there’s no way Obama would have won the race for the White House. In the same way he found success by building a diverse support base and team, one of the leadership lessons you learn in the business school classroom is to work together and lead teams of people from all over the world.
When Ben Tiggelaar, visiting professor at IE Business School and best-selling author, sat down to interview Barack Obama, the former president of the United States told him the secret to his skills as an orator is simple: tell your own story.
‘The tricks of charisma, and speaking with a certain style and tone, all that stuff is overrated,’ he said. ‘Here’s the thing that any effective communication requires: That you believe what you say. That you have taken the time to think through what it is that’s important, and you say it as truthfully and as clearly as you can.
‘So much of our communications today is sound bites, just disposable. We say whatever we think the immediate moment requires. What is expedient. Opposed to really digging in and thinking: Is that what I think?’
4. A positive attitude
Does anyone remember Obama’s campaign slogan?
‘Yes We Can’. Three words that told a story of optimism and one of belief. Sometimes the trick to a successful campaign is confidence and positivity. With their choice of slogan for the 2008 US election, Obama’s team hit the nail on the leadership head.
5. Motivating others and remaining calm under pressure
You can imagine sitting at the helm of the United States in the Oval Office is a feet up on the desk, walk in the park kind of job, right? Try again.
The office of the presidency of the United States demands respect, professionalism, and non-stop hard work for four years. Stressful, to say the least.
But every time he spoke during his two terms, or every time you hear anyone reflect upon their time under his leadership, one thing is clear: Obama kept his teams motivated and calm under pressure. Any aspiring leaders need to take that leaf out of the former president’s book.
During his presidency Obama read 10 letters from members of the public every day. It was his way of ensuring he didn’t sway from the goal at hand: to serve the American people.
At a time when government leaders can often seem detached from the people they serve, this is a gentle reminder that it doesn’t take much to connect.
If you find yourself in a position of leadership after business school you should take on this simple leadership lesson: From employees and the environment, to the society you serve at large, take the time to listen.
7. Being a decent person
One of the qualities of a good leader and something president Obama has in abundance is decency. Though not perfect—no president is—Obama showcased throughout his eight years an amount of grace and likeability that leave no doubt over the strength of his personal character.
If people like you, they’ll want to work for you, and if people want to work for you, you’re halfway there as a leader. Along with the traditional DNA of a leader—strong intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ)—a high decency quotient (DQ) completes, according to Bill Boulding, dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, a successful leader’s ‘triple-threat leadership capability’.
The big question is whether these skills can be learned and, if so, whether they can be learned at business school. MBA programs are meant to be the training grounds for future leaders, and so any program worth its weight in gold will take leadership lessons from the best.
The MBA curriculum teaches you the art of making sharp business presentations, working in diverse teams, and avoiding destructive scenarios like groupthink. You learn to work closely with people and lead together towards a common goal.
You can expect to learn a lot about leadership at business school, not just through core subjects but through the simple act of working and living with people from different countries and backgrounds.
That’s not to say you and all your classmates will go on to become presidential material. But with the right professorial guidance and hard work, there’s nothing to say you can’t emulate the 44th president of the United States wherever you work.
This article was originally published in 2009 and written by Kirti Dhingra. The article was updated January 2021 with new content.
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