Barack Obama’s 10 leadership lessons for HR

US president Barack Obama was voted in as the world’s most powerful leader after convincing his compatriots that he could rebuild America’s self-confidence and bring change.


In defeating two formidable rivals – Hillary Clinton and John McCain – Obama has shown himself to be a cool and competent manager, a charismatic persuader, and a remarkable orator, who displayed a mastery of the art of campaigning. He also revealed certain qualities and attributes that define his leadership style.


If you’re trying to lead a team or an organisation through the current economic downturn, here are 10 lessons HR leaders can learn from Obama:


1 Know yourself


Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses can help you to build credibility. A young African-American from a single-parent background, Obama takes a fiercely disciplined approach to life and is conscious of his image and of how he presents himself. Grounded and reflective, he shows his values, his self-regard and his emotional self-awareness.


2 Listen to people


Obama is described as someone who is acutely sensitive to other people’s predicaments. His powerful messages of hope and possibility stem from listening to what Americans want. By showing that he understands the problems that exist, he is able to position himself as in tune with the mood of the nation.


3 Provide an inspiring vision


A good leader needs to set the direction. Obama has given America an exciting, optimistic and inclusive vision of the future – his call for change has struck a chord. In highlighting that the difficulties faced are not insurmountable, he has won hearts and minds.


4 Communicate clearly


Good leaders are usually good communicators. Like Lincoln, Churchill and Mandela before him, Obama has impressed with his ability to deliver eloquent, from-the-heart and highly persuasive speeches.


5 Surround yourself with good people


Leaders need to have the right people around them – people who can provide sound advice and to whom they can delegate. Obama has been praised for the sense of loyalty and devotion that he inspires in those who work for him.


6 Be authentic


To be credible as a leader, what you say has to match what you do. Obama has a magnetic and likeable appeal, and seems brimming with energy to get things done. He is also consistent in his words and his actions, and this has helped him to make people believe not only that he is genuine, but also that he is on their side.


7 Be decisive


Good leaders do not dither. According to his colleagues, once Obama feels he has all the facts at his fingertips, he takes a decision – based on rational and emotional content.


8 Remain flexible


If the situation you are facing changes, you have to be able to adapt quickly. Obama showed an admirable ability to react and respond appropriately when the dominant issue in the presidential debates changed from national security to the financial crisis.


9 Keep your composure


In a crisis, leaders need a temperament that doesn’t overheat under pressure. Obama showed extraordinary composure and remained cool, calm and collected.


10 Seize the day


Turbulent times are an opportunity for leaders to show their greatness. Obama has grabbed the opportunity to fulfil his potential. Follow his example and make things happen for yourself.


What the future holds


There is, of course, more to being a leader than talking a great game. After his inauguration in Washington today (20 January) as the US’s 44th president, Obama will be judged on his actions. And he faces absurdly high expectations: he will have to repair public finances restore confidence in the economy and deliver on his promises to cut taxes, expand healthcare, bring troops home from Iraq, and bolster forces in Afghanistan.


These tasks will require more than uplifting oratory. Hope can turn to bitterness and cynicism if a leader is unable to deliver, and therein lies another leadership test: how to manage disappointment.


The world will be watching.


Jez Cartwright, chief executive, Performance Consultants

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