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Agenda: Leadership lessons from Obama


After 21 months of campaigning, America welcomed president elect Barack Obama on 4 November. At least 134 million Americans registered votes, shattering the previous record of 122 million, but with economic instability at its peak and the world looking for solutions, Obama has high expectations to live up to. John Fay MBE, founder and CEO of change management and leadership consultancy SFL, looks at the lessons workplace leaders can learn from Obama’s winning technique.

Barack Obama’s route to the top has been well-documented. His aim of ‘getting to the grass roots’ of American society was a clever political move and earned him favour and support from a diverse range of voters. This helped Obama secure a wider margin over his rival, McCain, than any other president in the past two decades. No mean feat for America’s first African-American president.
Photo of John Fay"Leadership is about engaging and earning trust from those around you, whether colleagues or voters. Obama achieved this by touching base with people from every level of society – regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or social class."

Obama taking time to focus on the grass roots is a tactic which can be adopted in everyday business. World leaders, as well as workplace leaders, must inspire others and unite groups to move forward with a common vision. Obama’s dream to take the presidency and affect positive change for America was something he needed to harbour support for. Leadership is about engaging and earning trust from those around you, whether colleagues or voters. Obama achieved this by touching base with people from every level of society – regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or social class.

Judged for the content of his character
Martin Luther King’s wish has been granted. Voters have judged Obama on the content of his character, not the colour of his skin. He is personable, appears approachable and is not afraid to show his softer skills. His family have been at his side through many of his public appearances, and the sad loss of Obama’s grandmother was an international news story.
Tips to do it like Obama:
  • Remember the grass roots of an organisation, not just the high-profile players – strong leaders lead from the top, with buy-in from staff at every level. Always remember to take time out to get to know personnel from various positions and teams within the company.

  • Personality can be a workplace winner: Don’t be afraid to show your personality and your softer side. Even president elect Barack Obama is not afraid to admit he is upset at his recent bereavement. Owning up to your feelings and reaching out for others to join you will help form stronger relationships within your organisation.

  • Two’s company: Ensure your team has a common vision and purpose to work towards. Leaders who put their trust in others will earn trust in return. Work as a team. There’s strength in numbers.

  • Actions sometimes do speak louder than words – If you say you are implementing an organisational change programme, do it. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many leaders and managers fail to deliver on promises they have publicly made to staff. Keeping your word will keep staff on your side and will unite belief in your ability to perform and face difficult times in the future.

  • Leading the country, as with running a company, requires soft and specialist skills. People buy into human emotions such as compassion and also grief. Obama’s passionate nature is a real asset. Successful leaders are not afraid to show their emotions in order to engage with others. Obama’s biographer summed it up by saying ‘(Obama) was the right person at the right time.’ In simpler terms, Obama ticked all the boxes for what a disenchanted electorate needed, not solely for his political motivations, but for his personality and strength of character.

    Obama knows he faces a host of changes when he takes reign in January – not least the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and rebuilding the economy. He has already acknowledged the future difficulties he faces but is urging the public to join him to overcome troubles. His aim of restoring unity in a fractured society will only be achieved by working with others and Obama is determined to utilise his supporters to affect positive change.

    It’s not him and us
    Leading the country is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and when that country is powerhouse America, you really have a challenge on your hands. That’s why buy-in from supporters is key. As in any organisation, a leader ceases to perform if others do not follow and Obama needs his followers. He has called for ‘we as a people’ to move the country and the economy forward and he is reliant on this teamwork to progress positively.

    Obama must ensure Americans feel secure in his abilities to reform the country and he must use honesty as a tool to reaffirm this safe feeling. During times of organisational change, workplace leaders often feel they must protect staff by being economical with the truth but, we must learn from Obama this is not the way. To build trust, leaders must present all the facts and a definitive action plan of how to move on. Trying to deal with the business or world failings alone is unlikely to end positively.

    Obama has promised he will be honest about the challenges ahead and this is a trait which should be emulated by leaders across the business world. Honesty is usually the best policy in business. Obama’s challenge will be delivering on his pre-win promises. Leaders who fail to deliver on public plans will quickly lose faith from supporters.

    Agent of change
    Organisational change must be cleverly controlled and explained to staff at all levels. People will feel insecure if they feel they are facing the unknown and so clear instructions are vital.

    Obama must let his party and the country know what his mission is and bank their support every step of the way, ‘block by block, brick by brick’. Optimism is infectious and building up belief in your ability and your ideals will help organisations move forward together. This will lead to a brighter, stronger future and will build unity across all levels of the organisation, or in Obama’s case, across the whole expanse of America.

    Leadership expert John Fay was awarded an MBE for his work teaching leadership, confidence and citizenship skills to young people during a 10-year period. He is the founder of SFL, a change management, leadership and development company. For more information visit


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