Leadership

An evening with President Barack Obama

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Author: Mike T. Smith, Managing Director, New Zealand at IBM

This week I had the privilege of attending the invitation-only dinner with President Barack Obama at the Auckland Viaduct Event Centre. Barack spoke for about seventy-five minutes. It was completely captivating, and I thought to share my key takeaways.

1.      Surround yourself with diversity

He mentioned that as he dealt with complex and difficult issues, he surrounded himself with a diverse set of people and viewpoints. He said some of his very best decisions followed listening to differing points of view and then spending the time to make a final decision. He found this easier as his Presidency progressed.

2.      Spend time with young people

The second takeaway was a simple comment he made about young people. “They will inherit our world” and so wherever he travels he always tries to include meeting up with young people, listening to their framework, their lens on the planet, their priorities on issues, their aspirations and their concerns.

3.      Leadership can be tough

“By the time something gets on my desk, it clearly is a difficult issue. Otherwise, someone else would have dealt with it”. Basically, it’s the tough stuff that ends up on a leaders desk, not the simple. And by default, any decision taken on these types of issues will be unpopular with some of the citizens of the US and abroad.

He went on to give an example and talked about the decision to take out the compound where they suspected Osama Bin Laden was living. After all the intelligence, they were only 55/45 confident that he was at the compound. So every decision he had to make included risk, for which he needed a mitigation plan. And he needed to be brave at these times

4.      He spoke a lot about his wife Michelle and his two daughters

He spoke very openly about his family. He was very proud that his girls treat their school janitor the same as they treat heads of State, they are funny, intelligent, confident and they don’t have a sense of entitlement. Even when he was President, if he asked them to tidy their rooms they would say “whatever…!” He clearly loves his family very deeply.

5.      Trappings

He does not miss the trappings of the office, although he does miss the shower on Air Force One! He likes having his life back and referred a couple of times to the “bubble” that the sitting President lives inside, with respect for the Secret Service in trees when playing golf, in every aspect of every event of every day. He enjoyed golf as President as it was the only outside activity that he could do which felt a bit like freedom.

My overall conclusion is Barack Obama has major strengths in both intelligence and thoughtfulness. He consults widely, he is brave when he needs to be, he cares about people (both Americans and non-Americans) and knew when it was time to leave.

His job clearly had plenty of complexity. I think there will be two elements of his legacy. Firstly the management of the office and the things we all saw the USA lead on during his two terms, the second element would be all the things he worked on to avoid happening, which will never be visible.

It was an awesome event and a big thankyou to Westpac New Zealand for the invitation!

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