The Authenticity of Obama

As a new political era dawns, what lessons about leadership can we grasp from Obama’s triumph? So much has been said already about the man who called his last book The Audacity of Hope. I’ll focus here on one factor that stands out, and it’s the thing about him that worked political magic–Obama’s authenticity, as an utterly distinctive yet powerfully representative American and citizen of the world.

The good news for all those who aspire to create sustainable change in their worlds–people like you and me–is that each one of us can take practical steps to embody greater authenticity and thereby produce better results in all aspects of our lives.

One exercise that has proven especially effective with my students, clients, and Total Leadership readers asks you to describe critical events in your past and how they’ve shaped your values. Everyone can do this, from teenagers to retirees. You’re also asked to portray the impact you imagine you’re having on the world fifteen years hence–your personal leadership vision. This, too, is a leadership must-do that everyone can do. It is in writing, and then talking with trusted advisors and friends, about these matters that you enhance your capacity to be real; to act now in a way that’s consistent with your core values. Effective leaders use their imaginations to connect the actual stories of their pasts with the hoped-for stories of their futures.

Obama’s good fortune (and ours) is to have a personal history that suits our collective moment remarkably well–especially his multi-racial, multi-national origins. His particular leadership genius has been to articulate a personal and collective vision that is rooted firmly in his, and our, past while it soars audaciously with hope for a better tomorrow for us and the world.

A useful, powerful vision is one that inspires as it unites, that focuses attention on what matters most while it guides action. To achieve these essential leadership purposes, it must be a compelling image of an achievable future; pulling on the heartstrings, a picture you can see, realistic while stretching limits, and out there in time.

While Obama staked out the territory of his vision for America, he increased his credibility on the world stage by incorporating his real past into his discourse in a natural, transparent way. We and many throughout the world see him as real because he is playing out his own history in a way that makes sense to us; his public persona and aspirations fit as a coherent self-presentation. To most observers, he’s not faking it. It’s the real man and his story, and his hopes, that we see, and so it’s easy to believe.

What’s your personal history and how does it fit with your leadership vision? Do your people–whether at work, or at home, or in your community–see you pointing to a compelling image of an achievable future that’s seamlessly and naturally rooted in the stories of the critical events in your life that have made you the distinctive person you are today? The more they do, the stronger your appeal and the greater your chances of success as you aim to garner their support for wherever it is you want them to go with you.

3 Responses to “The Authenticity of Obama”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Alice Walker’s open letter to President Elect Obama describes Obama’s authenticity and leadership vision as expectations, responsibilities and a new reality that is almost more than the heart can bear. It is deeply empowering to know that as leaders we can connect our stories to a profoundly enriching future.

  2. Thanks, Sylvia. If it’s available, please provide a link to Walker’s letter.

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