Leadership Lessons From Obama

The ascent of Barrack Obama has entranced millions across the world. We find people in urban India bewitched by the rise of a black man in another country. This is true of many individuals around the world. From Kenya, through Berlin and Russia to Malaysia, we are all awash with hope and a sense of optimism through this splendid leader.

Reams have been written about him, his mixed lineage, his transcendence of race and his stupendously efficient organization of the election machinery. There have also been endless discussions about the fundamental transformation of the American society which has enabled his rise.

But the Obama phenomenon powerfully demonstrates the classic principles of leadership. These are the basics, many have chosen to forget or ignore, in the daily battle for survival and growth and some out of short-sightedness. True leadership stands on the pillars of self-awareness, managing paradoxes, authenticity, vision, and ability to fight against odds in pursuit of a dream. These have defined the paradigm of timeless and effective, long-term leadership through out history from Christ to Gandhi and Churchill.

Self-awareness: The Oracle at Delphi said Know thyself and the Indian scriptures espouse the idea of self-knowledge as being the highest form of knowledge. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Obama’s first book’ Dreams of my father’, he wrote at 33, is full of extraordinary self-reflections and insight into his complex years in different countries and in the fractured American society. It is an emotional odyssey that delves into his inner life, his variegated upbringing through intense reflections. It is a voyage of self-discovery as powerful and poignant as any other.

Self-awareness is the profound and deep understanding about your strengths, your desires and your sources of energy, your wings of inspiration and your place in the world. Self-awareness enables one to resolve your paradoxes, to transcend conflicts and to become the masters of our own lives rather than slaves. As Warren Bennis puts it,” You make your life your own by understanding it.” A self-aware individual has also the courage of his convictions. This is the stepping stone to leadership.

Managing Paradoxes: We live in a complex world. The leader is tested everyday by conflicts, contrasting positions and mindsets and it is his job to manage those paradoxes and contradictions. Barrack is a true master in managing paradoxes. He is a black from working class roots who studied in the best schools. He is a Harvard lawyer who chose to be a community organizer. He is a community organizer who decided to fight for presidency without any significant experience. His grandfather was a Muslim, his father an atheist and he is a practicing Christian. He diets on asparagus and salads and has complete empathy with his repressed black brethren. He fought hard against McCain and Clinton with grace and candour. He does not compromise and yet drives his point. He manages the contradictions between black and white, democrats and republicans, and change and American founding ideals with remarkable élan.

A leader has the ability to engage with diverse viewpoints, probe the ideas sincerely and then arrive at a rational solution embracing the contrasting positions.

Authenticity: A true leader is completely authentic. Authenticity inspires trust. It is about developing your personality free of falsehoods and illusions. Obama has never flinched from confronting realities about himself and his own inner contradictions. He has gone through moments of self-doubt about his race and his choices. He has always maintained with African –Americans that he is black but has never been keen on using the color of his skin to get votes. He has not withdrawn from taking on the most difficult facts about his life like his association with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright and openly talking about them to the public. He is what you see and that authenticity has led to the extraordinary trust reposed in him by people across age, race and class.

Authenticity is associated with sincerity, honesty and integrity. It is a reflection of a leader’s own self and leaders have to adapt to multiple situations without losing their identity and that is why authenticity is so important and together with the ability to manage paradoxes , enables a leader to handle complex situations and uncertainty.


Vision: Barrack has always communicated and remained steadfast to his vision. It is a vision of hope, unity and working together. It is free of rancour and negativity. It is remarkable in its scope of appealing to the best in us. It is a brave new world without any distinctions of race, creed or origins.

This vision is forged in the reality of today, is interpreted through the existing strands of culture and is an indistinct but credible version of tomorrow. The leaders need to develop a vision and communicate it continuously.

Fighting against odds: Last, Obama stands out for being able to fight against odds in every situation. His entire life is a story of overcoming odds stacked against him by his origins, his circumstances and then in the presidential battle by the formidable Clinton machine. Along the way he fights mental demons, prejudices of his closest friends and family and battles on for a brave, new world without harbouring any self-doubt.

The media and bookshelves are full of material and literature on leadership. They emphasise communication, false significance of heritage, confidence and various other attributes. They are important but they do not make a true leader. They are the secondary characteristics of a leader. The principal pillars are these timeless principles.


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