6 Lessons In Leadership and Life From Barack Obama You Need To Read Right Now
President Barack Obama has more policy legacies than the average incumbent of the office, whether it's the Affordable Care Act, the Paris Agreement or thawing of the US-Cuba relationship. But one legacy that might just outlive every single act of legislation in the history books is the sense of hope he engendered, both in the US and around the world.
His leadership inspired a generation of young people to stand up and fight for what they believe in. Since leaving office, the work of the Obama Foundation has been focused on continuing that legacy. That led to the foundation's inaugural Leaders: Asia-Pacific summit in Kuala Lumpur last December after Obama's trip to Singapore for the Education Benefit Gala.
A total of 200 leaders, including 10 Gen.T honourees, were selected from around the region for a fellowship programme, which includes mentorship and training. The summit kicked off the year-long programme with a series of talks and classes focused on social impact.
Speaking to an intimate crowd of fellows and a handful of selected media, including Gen.T, President Obama was relaxed and candid during the talk, sharing his experiences and insights with the room. Here are six of the leadership lessons we took from the session.
1/6 Understand that where you grow up shapes your perspective
"Where you grow up changes that way you look at the world, and that doesn't make you better or worse than somebody else, just different. Growing up in Hawaii means you’re generally happy because the weather is so good all the time.
People were always like, 'Barack, you seem so calm, you seem so relaxed'. When it’s 80°F [32°C] and there’s a beach nearby, you feel good. There’s an island spirit that’s important. There’s a genuine sense of co-operation that arises out of the fact you have limited land and resources, and there's an appreciation of the land that informs how I see environmental issues. Even before I knew the word 'environment', I knew throwing trash out the window was really bad.
Living in Indonesia opened my eyes to how big the world was, it gave me a sense of how people can struggle. When I moved [to Asia] in 1967, Indonesia had just gone through political turmoil, the county was very underdeveloped and there was a lot of poverty. It made me see how society gives so much to some and so little to others, which informed my views. There was also no democracy, and people were afraid of expressing their views.
I knew things weren’t always fair: life isn’t always fair yes, but part of the role of a better society is to give all children the option of a good school to go to, and good healthcare, and enough to eat. I also think I appreciated and accepted a certain restraint that comes from living in this part of the world. Modesty is a value that isn’t always highly regarded in the US."
2/6 Find the middle ground—the areas that unite us
"We live in a time where there is a big contest of ideas. We see the world as there is us and there is them. But ultimately the dream of a parent for their children in Vietnam isn’t fundamentally different to one in Australia.
So many of the things we see in our politics and in conflicts within and between countries arise from differences in race, religion, gender or sexuality—all those things that say I am better than you because of my genetic predisposition or the family I was born into. And it does a lot of damage.
There are certain core values that we should apply to everyone, regardless of what they look like or how they worship, or the station to which they are born. Societies work better when everybody has a voice.
If there is a society that educates boys but not girls, I can understand the culture that it comes from, but I will insist—as somebody who has two daughters and a very strong-minded wife—that women are at the very least the equal of men. Which means that countries that sideline half of their population will be less successful than ones that get all the talent that is open to that country."
(Related: Spending US$2 Million on a 2-Day Experience is This Singaporean Couple's Way of Helping Vulnerable Kids in Nigeria)
3/6 The most important thing is to listen
"I think it is important to recognise that there are going to be conflicts in values. It is one thing to respect somebody’s religion, but what if that religion does not respect women? We have to accept there are contradictions in so much of life: sometimes there are two rights to reconcile or two wrongs to deal with.
When I was younger, I realised that some of the people I loved, who showed great care and compassion in many aspects of their lives, said really wrong things about the LGBT community. I had to say to them, that those ideas are not consistent with what you have told me in respect to your belief about Jesus’ teachings. I lost friends this way, and I reconciled myself to that.
You have to feel comfortable that people start at difference places to you and won’t think the same way you do. Show some respect for where somebody is before you take them where you want to take them. Which is why the most important thing is to listen."
4/6 Don't ever feel hopeless
"[Fighting climate change] is going to be a generational project. Unfortunately, the previous generation hasn’t handled this as they should have. Old people are not going to worry about this as much as young people. Accept this. There is no silver bullet. In each country, you will have to make common causes with your leaders to find the best solution to move forward.
For those who live in countries with a lot of forests, find out how you can preserve them. For those of you who are islanders, experiencing the effects right now—your voice, your witness to what is happening right now is a moral call to the rest of the world. If you live in a big industrialised country like the US, our carbon footprint is bigger than anybody else's.
How is each one of us trying to reduce our own footprint and influence policy? If you are an entrepreneur, how are you looking to change your business? You can’t expect political leaders to say we’re going to sacrifice development and leave people poor—you need another solution. I am still optimistic we can slow the advancement of a warming planet. The oceans will rise and that will displace people. We will have to anticipate some of the consequences of that. But there is a big difference between the ocean rising three-feet and six-feet. There will be problems and disruptions, but we shouldn’t feel hopeless."
(Related: ClimateForce Founder Barney Swan On Walking In The Footsteps Of His Father, Polar Explorer Robert Swan)
5/6 Maintain perspective
"Throughout human history, we have gone through some really bad times. Every country has a history that is painful. I think that should be useful in giving you some sense of perspective. I have often said to groups, particularly of young people, that if you could choose any moment in history to be born in—and you didn’t know what gender or religion or nationality you were—you’d choose right now.
Because the truth is, the world has never been as well-educated, as wealthy, as healthy or as tolerant as it is now. It's hard to remember the degrees of violence that have happened just in your parents' lifetimes, much less your grandparents' lifetimes. And yet people overcame, worked through it, struggled and created better and better circumstances.
The same thing that is true in our own lives is true for society—we take one step backward for two steps forward. The best we can do is work hard and advance as much as we can. We cannot change the world alone, we can just pass the baton to the next generation. It is important to feel a sense of urgency, but you’re not going to solve a problem like climate change on your own. I was the President of the United States, I had some clout, some juice, and I cared about this issue deeply. But I couldn't solve it alone. Change never happens overnight."
6/6 Find balance when you're young
"There is no perfect formula. But I think it starts with recognising that on your deathbed, you will not remember work. I will not remember any bill I passed or any big crowds or the inauguration, I will be thinking about holding hands with my daughters and seeing them laugh. That is going to be the thing that lasts, the thing that sticks. The unbounded love I feel for them.
Conversely, I don’t care how successful you are—if the people you love are in pain or are suffering, that will overcome you. When Sasha was three months old, she had meningitis. We rushed her to the hospital, she had a spinal tap and I had no idea what was happening in that period of time other than that. All I wanted from the world was for that baby to feel better. Knowing that, you have to organise your time so these people you love so much are taken care of. There will be sacrifices but have some sense of prioritisation.
The reason I could run for President was because I hadn’t married someone cute but stupid. I had married someone incredibly strong. I had confidence that the kids would be okay, because they would be in a community while I was gone. I felt an enormous loss, but I knew it wouldn’t have such an impact on them.
There will, of course, be phases where you prioritise different things. There will be times where it is okay to focus on work, but other times you need to make sacrifices on the work front because things aren’t okay at home. I do think that generally men feel more comfortable not giving that a thought, but these arrangements are increasingly going to change as women say, ‘I have work that I want to do too’. But at the end of the day, it is a privilege to love somebody that much, and to make sacrifices for them. It’s not a burden, it’s a great gift."