Barack Obama: Lessons & Insights on Leadership

May 30, 2019
The Culture Equation
Barack Obama: Lessons & Insights on Leadership

Written by Hiam Sakakini

Barack Obama is one of the most compelling and inspirational people of our time. Of anyone alive today, he is someone you can’t pass up an opportunity to see speak. Especially when it comes to his insights into leadership and building effective teams. So, what did he have to say?

Barack Obama has a presence about him that is absolutely unique. A confident swagger. A seriousness coupled with an intelligent wit that lightens the mood whenever the subject gets too heavy… And believe me, at times, it got quite heavy.

Whereas Michelle Obama got deep into the psyche of what makes us tick, fears we may harbour, and how to overcome those, instead, Barack looks out at the world with all its complexities. He is able to distill an all-encompassing view of the world in a way that is easy to understand and digest.

His two terms as President of the United States may be over but the weight of the world’s problems still sit on his shoulders.


1. Political Polarisation

Through globalisation and integration there has been disruption. Blue collar workers have lost jobs and status. Political divides and societal tensions have caused world wars in the past.

2. Climate Change

We will see mass migration, and resulting global security issues. A lot of what happened in Syria happened after a long period of drought, causing unrest and frustration.

3. Social Media

A double-edged sword. Increasingly used to propagate hate and falsehoods. “We no longer have an agreed upon set of facts.”

4. Asia

The fastest growing and most populous region. We have a traditional superpower (the United States) and a rising superpower (China). Sometimes this can lead to conflict. This is a worry.

Heavy, right?

I needed some good news at this point. And he knew the rest of the audience did too.

We needed a good dose of… Gratitude?

And right on cue, he talked about how privileged he felt to positively impact the lives of so many people. He loved the work, which he humbly characterised as ‘solving problems’. He knew he couldn’t do this without a team and their extraordinary talent. “There’s a certain satisfaction in working with excellent people in high stress situations,” he acknowledged.

“If you’re in a leadership situation your first job is to build the best team. People who subscribe to your values and vision.”

I completely agree with his feeling that we deal with probabilities and unknowns and no solution is ever certain to succeed. The best way to tackle a problem is to set up a process to address issue(s) from every angle before making a decision.

Then things got a little controversial. Barack threw out the statement: “some of the biggest problems in the world come from old people–usually old men–not getting out of the way”.

His former Vice President, Joe Biden, probably fits into that ‘old men’ category. Biden is currently running as a democratic presidential candidate and, like me, you might suspect, would take exception to this view!

Nevertheless, Obama dug his heels in even further, throwing out a potentially more controversial idea:

“What would happen if every two years, every country on earth was run by women?

He believes we would see significant improvements across the board on just about everything… Interesting, to say the least.

I’m not sure if the answer to gender inequality in politics is the pendulum swinging entirely in the other direction, however, I do think he has a point with regard to ‘constant renewal of leadership’, and that renewal includes more and more women taking up–and being accepted–into leadership positions.

Barack Obama’s also doing something about encouraging more young people to consider and pursue leadership positions through his Obama Foundation. What key skill does he think is important to teach the foundation’s students?

“What we need more of are people who are comfortable and understand complexity; failures in leadership often spill across borders. Economies are interconnected…”

He continued that, people don’t respond to complexity, they respond to simplicity and provided a couple of examples of those simplicities:

  • Don’t worry about climate change, it doesn’t exist
  • All your problems are because of X people, let’s round them up

Hmmm. I wonder who he was referring to?!

Not only is it important for leaders to understand and deal with complexity, he believes it is important for people who elect leaders to understand these intricacies. “Being a leader is like running a relay race,” he claimed, “You take the baton from the person before you and pass it onto the person after you.” With every decision you ask yourself, “If we do this, will things be better? Not perfect, but better?”

It’s something worth considering. Many leaders are focused on the now and, often, their own legacy, however, many leaders overlook who will come after and continue to improve upon their hard work.