June 16, 2022

Leadership lessons from ex-President Barak Obama

By Paul Laughlin

Over the last few months, I have been slowly reading and enjoying volume one of Barak Obama’s memoirs, “A Promised Land”. At first I both this just for personal interest. However, having now finally finished the book, I see many lessons for other leaders. So, I thought I’d share them with you in this book review.

Now, let me first acknowledge that I do recognise that there is a risk in reviewing the work of a leading politician. I have no desire here to argue the Democrat cause against any Republican readers. However, in the light of all we have seen from Donald Trump & Boris Johnson, it was a delight to recollect better examples.

Rather, I am reviewing and recommending this book on the basis of Barak Obama’s personal experience. This is a very personal set of recollections. Ones that give us an insight into the challenges, opportunities & decisions faced by a ‘leader of the free world‘. Few of us will ever hold a leadership position that has so much impact on so many others. So, it is a great opportunity to learn what one such leader learnt from his leadership journey.

What is shared by Barak Obama and why is it relevant?

I mentioned above that this is volume one of Barak’s memoirs. It covers the period from his childhood memories & upbringing until the capture of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. So, we have insights into his background, upbringing & what led to his decisions to run for political offices (culminating in the presidency). Those stories, including his election victory take upon the first two of seven parts.

In part there we learn how Barak discovered much of what is involved in being President. The reality behind the external images, both the comforts and the frustrations. Then the remainder of the book covers his experience of a series of major challenges whilst in office. The impact of the financial crash, difficult foreign relations (including the Middle East & Russia), the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and others.

Why do I consider such diary entries to be relevant to data, analytics & insight leaders? Because of the honesty and reflections of this author. He writes surprisingly well, with a human warmth and frailty. He is honest about what he got wrong, his frustrations, dreams and relationships. Much of this I see as having lessons for all leaders in big organisations. For all those reasons I recommend this book to fellow leaders.

What are the top 3 insights for other leaders?

This is not a quick read. At 701 pages, it’s a big book. But it is engaging and there’s no need to rush, as you are covering decades of a life examined anyway. To save you some time, I’ve reflected on what my biggest three takeaways were from hearing all those recollections. Here are the themes that have stayed with me after finishing reading a book which kept me engaged. I hope you can relate to all these leadership challenges & opportunities.

1) Remember your life outside work, make decisions with your eyes open

Compared to when I started my first senior leadership role, the world of business has changed greatly. Some of that is for the better. Leaders can now openly share their need for balance and wellbeing in their lives. More room is made for leaders to have time with their spouses & families, as well as protect their mental health. However, this has not been the case in the past & can be perceived as weakness in the world of politics. These memoirs are clear as to the price of seeking high office. It means missing events with your children, it means a strain on your relationship and too long apart.

Early on in this book I was won over with the honesty Barak about his mistakes in this regard, personal ambition and how much he cares about Michelle and his children. You hear Michelle’s wise concerns and challenges as well as what the campaigning work costs him. But where I see a success here is the honesty of the conversations between a husband and wife. They are both straightforward about what they want and where they cannot compromise. They clearly care deeply about each other and show flexibility along the way. But it’s a useful lesson for all leaders. Before seeking that promotion that will require more from you (in time & stress) have a very honest negotiation with your loved ones.

2) Listen to advisers but make your own decisions

Throughout the book, it is clear that Barak Obama values wise counsel and expertise. This is demonstrated both in how he selects his teams and advisors and how he listens to them. It was encouraging to see that this also included appointments from the other side of the aisle. Sometimes he appointed experts whom he knew would disagree with him or balance other viewpoints/biases in his team.

However, if you are not careful as a leader that can slip into management by committee. Leaders should never hide behind processes, meetings or what others told them. The buck stops here is true not just for presidents but for all leaders in regards to their fiefdom. President Barak Obama demonstrates a healthy balance when faced with almost all of the big decisions on this book. First, he seeks out the best brains to advise him. Valuing both proven experience & younger radicals willing to think differently. Second, he genuinely listens to them & asks questions when he is not clear or knows he needs to be challenged. Thirdly, he often then asks for time to reflect before making a big call (including the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden). Lastly, he takes the decision and owns it. That is leadership.

3) Realise compromise will be needed, don’t let the perfect rob you of the good

There are plenty of very frustrating portions of Barak’s story. Times when it seems his hands are toed or he is doomed if he does or if he doesn’t. Reality in office proved to be less “Yes we can” as “We want to but we can’t”. Obvious examples are when he lost control of the Senate, the Tea Party’s influence on preventing any collaboration and the constraints on implementing Obamacare. However, normally in life character is revealed in the difficult times. Barak Obama’s character shines through what must have been dark days for him as well as his frustrated supporters.

Time and again he resists the temptation to appear principles or win plaudits at the cost of not getting any change achieved. He is willing to brook compromise. Willing to be blamed. Barak is willing to have the press totally misrepresent the reasons for decisions & the guilty parties. All in order to get some change achieved. All leaders need to learn that the reality of delivering a plan is very different than your motivating vision. Not letting your dream of the perfect solution rob you of delivering an imperfect but good enough solution. I admire his honest about his mistakes & even more his character in doing this.

What would be in your memoirs?

I hope that review inspires you to read “A Promised Land“. As well as everything I have shared above it is also a fine history book. An opportunity to revisit many major events with the long view.

But, what did you take from my points above? Did this leadership lessons ring true in your experience. Do you identify with Barak Obama and his challenges? Taking the long view on your career, which leadership lessons would you identify? What have you learnt that you coach your future leaders?

If you have some leadership memoirs, or just lessons learnt in the reality of a challenging leadership role, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s all help others by sharing our leadership lessons as generously.