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Tips on becoming a great leader: In conversation with Barack Obama

November 22, 2019
President Barack Obama in Halifax

Photo credit: Nova Scotia Co-operative Council

Written by
Sarah McLean

Sarah McLean

Photo credit: Nova Scotia Co-operative Council

Halifax recently hosted a very special guest—President Barack Obama for a “Conversation with Barack Obama”, sponsored by the NS Co-operative Council and NATIONAL Atlantic client, Credit Unions of Atlantic Canada. It was a sea of business leaders, political leaders, clients, friends, and neighbours, but there were also over 2,000 future leaders in the room—young people who are facing some pretty complex stuff as they grow up.

As a public affairs professional and a political junkie, the chance to hear Obama speak was an amazing opportunity. Whether you worship at the altar of Obama or bless the day he left the White House, you cannot argue on this—Obama is one of the greatest communicators of our time. He’s mastered the art of communicating tough issues in an optimistic and authentic way, two qualities that are easy to recognize but difficult to master.

One of the personal comments Obama shared was that he had a “gift” of an even temperament. Obama went on to say that he never bought into the hype when things were good, and that helped him maintain perspective when things were bad. Not all of us are dealing with global economic meltdowns or the healthcare of 300 million people, but the principle remains the same: A steady hand will right the ship.

There were a few other tidbits that Obama shared about his leadership style which really resonated with me.

1. Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.

If you are focused on being really good at what you do, your progression as a leader is a given. Spend your energy and precious time thinking about mastering your art and less about if you are climbing the ladder fast enough.

2. Change comes from the bottom up.

Politicians and policy leaders are looking for success stories. They like ideas and initiatives that have already gone through trial and error. If you can advance an initiative or program at a community level and there is success and impact, it’s very likely your project will be referenced as a case study and implemented on a larger scale.

3. There will always be tension in managing your work and family life.

People are looking for leaders who understand this tension and manage through it. There is no secret here, unfortunately. Good leaders are ones who know how to surround themselves with smart people, build teams, delegate, and prioritize.

Last, but certainly not least was this brilliant nugget…

4. Activism is about listening, too.

Seems like common sense, right? Except we, as a culture, aren’t listening to each other. We are bombarded with messages and opinions—on social and traditional media, when we walk down the street, in our addiction to our phones. We live in a noisy world, so learning how to quiet the clutter and truly listen has never been harder or more important.

Obama went on to say: “Don’t just label and finger point. Bring communities together. Make sure that you surround yourself with different perspectives and ask questions.” We need to double down on this. This particularly rings true when I think back to our recent election campaign. Did the conversation and dialogue during that campaign reflect what Canadians are actually thinking and feeling right now, or was it actually 40 days of “finger pointing” and “labeling” between party leaders?

As I think about contributing to building better communities in my own province and region, this is the piece of Obama advice that will stick with me. With every challenge, I will ask, “Who does this matter to?”, “Why do they feel this way?” and “What role can I play to make this better”.

Not everyone can be President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada. What I realized is you don’t have to be. However big or small your corner of the world, think about how you can make it better. Listen, be curious, and make change. Try things. Don’t be afraid to fail. And, most of all, do what inspires you.

——— Sarah McLean is a former Associate Vice-President, Corporate Affairs at NATIONAL Public Relations


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