This past Monday I had the great fortune of sitting in on a conversation with former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Before I sound too prideful or self-aggrandizing, let me clarify something. I was in a room with 10,000 of my not-so-closest friends, and I wasn’t actually involved in the discussion, per se. I attended the Association for Talent Development 2018 Conference and Barack Obama was the opening keynote speaker. He engaged in a conversation with Tony Bingham, the CEO of ATD, and I got to listen in. But still, the former president was relaxed, open, and made all the attendees feel like they were part of the discussion.
The conversation was wide-ranging, covering the importance of values, inclusion, learning, diversity of perspectives, and many other topics relevant to leaders today. President Obama made three points that really caught my attention:
- Have high expectations for your people—In his first presidential campaign, Obama’s organization was hugely successful in leveraging the talents of young people in their early to mid-20’s. The former president reflected on how they challenged these young folks to rise to the occasion, even though many of them had not yet had significant job responsibilities. The Obama campaign enlisted their support, trained them, and trusted them to do good work, and the vast majority of the time they delivered. In my experience, I’ve found it’s common for leaders to under-challenge their teams. We talk a good game about setting BHAG’s—Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals—but most of the time the goals we establish are pretty modest and achievable. I was inspired to set goals that challenge my team to not only stretch, but extend themselves out of their comfort zones.
- Call on the outer circle—In perhaps my favorite story, Obama shared a leadership practice he developed some time during his first term in office. When the President meets with the Cabinet, seated around the table are all the heads of the various federal departments and any other senior advisers the president wants in attendance. Seated behind all the principals at the table are their respective staff members, each bearing stacks of papers, briefing books, and any other relevant reports or data needed for the meeting. President Obama routinely observed all the principals being fed information from their staffers, so he decided to start randomly calling on the “outer circle” to solicit their opinions. He said it was surprising and awkward at first, primarily for those staffers put on the spot, but he continued with the practice because it brought diverse ideas and perspectives to the discussion. This story served as a good reminder about the importance of hearing and understanding points of view different from my own. How are you doing in this regard? Are you soliciting input from the outer circle, especially people who may see things differently than you, or do you only seek the input of those who you know will agree with you?
- Focus on what you want to accomplish, not a position or title—A recurring theme of President Obama’s talk was being of service. He encouraged everyone to focus on the impact they want to make in their work, and not be overly focused on a particular title or role. The titles and accolades will usually come, but only after we’ve made our impact seen and known. Although he didn’t use the words servant leadership, that’s exactly what Obama described. Servant leaders put the needs of others ahead of their own and they look for ways to be of service. Being of service does not equate to being a passive or milquetoast leader. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Servant leaders see a need and take action to meet it. Servant leaders are proactive and future-focused, and they look to make the world a better place as a result of their efforts. Our culture encourages us to glory in praise, titles, and fame, but the true leaders in life are those who look to serve others as a way to fulfill their greater purpose in life.
Most of us will never achieve a position remotely as influential as President of the United States. But all of us, regardless of our station in life, can apply these three common-sense principles of effective leadership to make a small dent in our corner of the universe.