Monday, February 09, 2009

Obama Leadership: 8 Ways to Lead in the 21st Century

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

The world is looking for a new kind of leader who can bring hope and stability in dark economic times. President Obama could very well be that leader. Only time will tell. What can we learn so far from Obama’s style of leadership? Here are some observations to note for leading in the 21st century:

1. Survival of the Fittest

Charles Darwin spoke of survival of the fittest belonging to the species that is not necessarily the strongest, but the most adaptive. Obama was strong, bold and fiercely determined at the very start of his campaign. But what catapulted his success into the stratosphere was how his communications team adapted to the power of the internet to engage voters through various online social media channels such as Facebook, Myspace, YouTube and Twitter, and by developing a powerful web presence that helped raise over half a billion dollars online for his campaign.

2. Foes to Friends

Will Lincoln’s “team of rivals” strategy of appointing campaign opponents to his cabinet work for President Obama? That remains to be seen; but Obama has shown so far that he is a charismatic leader who can successfully put differences behind and get opponents onboard his team using charm and intelligence. Although easier said than done, an enemy turned into a true friend can prove to be a loyal ally. On a broader scale, Obama’s consensus building approach to international relations by seeking to understand before being understood and welcoming multilateral decision making, could help ease world tensions and maybe even convert certain enemy nations into allies. Naïve yes, impossible no.

3. Lead by Example

On his first day of office, President Obama froze senior White House staff salaries exceeding $100,000 and promised more openness and transparency to “make government more trustworthy in the eyes of the American people.” His example sends a clear message to the public that his leadership team is willing to share in the sacrifices necessary to turn the economy around.

4. Bold and Swift Action

Rhetoric has to be backed by action. In his inaugural speech, Obama spoke of ‘bold and swift’ action. From the decision to close down Guantanamo prison in a year, to vowing to pull out American combat troops from Iraq in sixteen months, not to mention the herculean task of getting Congress to pass an $800 billion-plus stimulus package, Obama has so far delivered on his call for ‘bold and swift’ action. Leadership is about judgment – the ability to make decisions. Some of the choices may be wrong in retrospect, but leadership, like a river, must keep moving forward.

5. Admit Mistakes

It takes a special person of character to readily admit mistakes. When Tom Daschle pulled out of the nomination process for the post of Health Secretary after controversy over his personal tax records, Obama admitted, “I screwed up.” He was sincere, direct, and to the point. True leaders earn respect by honestly admitting their mistakes. False leaders are despised, and their plans eventually undermined, because they hide behind their title or position and blame someone else for their own mistakes.

6. Maintain Poise

Whether in a public debate, press conference, or media interview, Obama has shown his trademark signature of remaining cool, calm, and collected by neither overreacting nor underreacting to curve ball questions and attacks. When all is said and done, the person who can keep cool when others are hot is usually the one to boss the job.

7. Powered by Purpose

One of the reasons why President Obama has such a high approval rating is that people see that he is driven by a genuine sense of moral purpose. While he could have easily pursued a high paying corporate law career, Obama chose civil rights law practice instead and served as a community organizer who took a grassroots approach to improving his community in the South Side of Chicago. He is a caring and compassionate leader who burns for justice. In perhaps the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the history of America, Obama expresses outrage at Wall Street execs who pocketed billions in bonuses from taxpayer bailout money and calls for a ‘new era of responsibility’.

8. Hope Rooted in Reality

Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” With unprecedented access to information today, it is becoming nearly impossible to fool all the people even some of the time. People want the facts and aren’t fooled easily. Leaders who make the mistake of blind optimism or obscuring the facts are in for a rude awakening. Without the facts, without the proper diagnosis, the disease will only get worse and spread.

President Obama understands this phenomenon and is a leader who provides hope rooted in reality. With sobering resolve, Obama is telling his people that they will have to hunker down, roll up their sleeves, and work hard to rebuild the American dream; a dream that may take more than a term to rebuild, but that can become a reality – with the audacity of hope.

Sharif Khan (; is a freelance writer, consultant, speaker, and author of the inspirational leadership book, Psychology of the Hero Soul. He publishes his Hero Soul ezine for cutting-edge advice on success, leadership and personal growth. To contact Sharif, call: 416-417-1259.

This article is excerpted from Sharif Khan’s Hero Soul ezine and is copyright © 2009 by Sharif Khan.