Obama on Leadership and Winning the Presidency

Yesterday I caught part of a random IG live with Steph Curry and Barack Obama, just in time to hear his take on leadership and how it helped him win the presidency.

Obama said he didn’t win because he was the best candidate. He believes he won because he empowered his team to campaign for him, listen to the voters and understand them. 

He jumped right into this being about straight up leadership and how it’s something not everyone gets. He said if you’re looking at yourself like “how do I dominate this – how do I stay on top,” you’re not going to be an effective leader. If you empower those around you to do their best and feel good about what they’re doing, it naturally lifts you up. 

I’ve often thought that people who are thoughtful about being a leader tend to gravitate toward this conclusion because they’re purposeful about uncovering what drives the best in people.

The IG session also reminded me of James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. Although he says he didn’t vote for Obama, he spends considerable time focusing on Obama’s thoughtful leadership. 

One anecdote stuck out to me almost more than anything else in the book. Obama was taking pictures with a family, and the daughters (college age) had their boyfriends with them. Obama subtly suggested taking a picture without the boyfriends so that the family would have a nice picture with the president in case the relationships didn’t work out. 

Obama is a busy man. To consider such a small detail that would be meaningful to a family not his own – wow. 

Comey also talks a lot about how from a young age, he’d always tried to pay attention to leadership qualities that got the best out of him to emulate when he had the opportunity to be a leader. I have probably written and talked about this before, but I think this is some of the best advice I’ve ever read. 

Leadership Work Culture

Leadership Starts Before You’re a Leader

It’s somewhat painful listening to a CEO on a quarterly earnings call thanking everyone “so much” for all of the “hard work.” It sounds hollow, and it often is. But I’ve been at two companies where it didn’t feel hollow because the CEO took time to make an appearance and learn some names. 

When I was at Midmark, CEO John Baumann took a few minutes a day to walk the floor and learn everyone’s name and their job function when he started at the company. He’s a CEO. He’s BUSY, and it’s a big company. But he made time to take 10 minutes to walk around the building every now and then. When he spoke, I didn’t just listen. I was engaged. I was more engaged with the company as a direct result of one person at the top acknowledging our existence. (I loved this company for many other reasons, but that was a big one!)

At PR Newswire Europe, the global CEO at the time, Ninan Chako, would sometimes visit the London HQ. He knew my name! He even referenced a conversation with me during a quarterly staff meeting. Because that was my first job, I didn’t yet realize it wasn’t a given that executives take the time to get to know the people in the trenches. Still, I felt “famous.” I was highly motivated to do a good job, because I thought I was on Ninan’s radar! I wasn’t, but he made me feel seen. 

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey talks about taking note of great leadership qualities from the time when he was a teen working in a grocery store. What made him feel motivated, trusting and committed? What made him angry? 

I’ve always thought the same thing, and as time goes on certain characteristics have stuck with me, such as Ninan Chako taking a couple minutes out of his day to talk to me and digesting what I said to the point that he mentioned it during a global meeting. I want to be intentional about carrying these traits through my own leadership in the future.