Mom-in-Chief. Golden smile. Arguably one of the most progressive first ladies of our time. Michelle Obama has made her mark. Coloring outside the lines of past traditional roles of first ladies, Obama plays an active role in support of her husband’s agenda. Like many first ladies before her, Michelle skillfully weaves a personal identity of her husband— an image that will gainfully assist him to his reelection. However, she accomplishes what few great speakers have done, evoking exemplary practices of leadership through her words.
In Leadership Challenge (Jossey Bass; $24.95), a Businessweek best-seller, authors James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner point out their five exemplary practices of leadership, all of which are embodied byFirst Lady Obama. Take a cue and learn from these tenants of excellence in your career and overall life:
Encourage the heart: According to Leadership Challenge, a culture of celebration and encouragement will carry your supporters through difficult times. “Every day, the people I meet inspire me. …Every day, they make me proud. … Every day they remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth,” said Obama at the start of her recent Democratic National Convention speech. Expressing gratitude is always important.
Model the way: Basically, practice what you preach. In order to position an organization to continuously set high standards and show commitment, leaders must model their ideal behavior. This builds trust, loyalty, and support. “I love that we can trust Barack to do what he says he’s going to do, even when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard,” Obama has said.
Modeling the way also means listening to the concerns of others and being open to find ways to promote better work. Describing how President Obama pours over letters of struggling Americans, Michelle has said, “I see the concern in his eyes… and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, “You won’t believe what these people are going through, Michelle….It’s not right.” Having the ability to understand people and their values and concerns, gives one the advantage of arriving at a more viable solution, according to Leadership Challenge.
Inspire a shared vision: Leaders cannot exist without followers. The most palatable way to lead is understanding the concerns, values, and aspirations you share with supporters. You’re most likely to execute great work when you can identify a shared vision, which enables people to act. You must be able to speak the language of those you seek as well, while articulating your vision. “..fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids” The vision as spoken by Obama. “I got to know Barack, I realized that even though he’d grown up all the way across the country, he’d been brought up just like me. Barack was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.” Obama uses this opportunity to connect Barack with her own story, and the story of all Americans. This theme throughout her speech provided authenticity to her words.
Challenge the process: Don’t wait until paint dries. In leadership, you must venture out into the unknown to go against the status quo and improve the current condition. Challenging the process can yield some risk, failure, and obstacles when arriving at solutions. “And I love that even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it, when we’re worried that the bill won’t pass, and it seems like all is lost, Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise,” Obama has said.
Enable others to act: Fostering collaborations is what sustains organizations and the ability to execute missions. In the aforementioned practices, one must understand the shared goals, vision, and concerns of those they lead— while articulating effectively the intention. The First Lady says, “… He [President Obama] believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity…you do not slam it shut behind you…you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”