Special Report: Leadership Lessons from the President

What you can learn from Barack Obamas management style

political views mirrored those of some of his past and present associates. He and his camp also knew that they could easily assert similar charges against his opponents—a tactic even the media slyly suggested. But Obama understood that while dramatic plays in politics make for good copy in the press, they do little to effectively further political goals.

John W. Rogers Jr., CEO of Chicago-based Ariel Investments and the campaign’s Illinois finance co-chair, recalls times when offensive smear tactics were suggested. “Obama’s vision was to take the high road during the campaign,” he says. “Some of us thought he should go negative toward Hillary and try to remind people of some of the horrible things that happened during the Clinton administration. He said absolutely not. That’s not the campaign I’m going to run. I only want people on board who are going to take the high road as well. It took a lot of courage to stick to that commitment.”

Corporate Lesson: It can be easy for an executive to be focused on winning at any cost. In a highly competitive environment, smearing or maligning a fellow executive can feel like fair game, if the goal is to win that highly prized promotion or contract. But as much as the personal objective is to advance your position in an organization, the overall goal is always to work in a manner that will benefit the company. Ron Williams, president, chairman, and CEO of Aetna, likes to remind employees to “attack the problem, not the person.”


“The foundational skill of organizing is to be a good listener,” says Jerry Kellman, who hired Obama as a community organizer in 1985, “and [Obama] does that well.”
He remembers how Obama galvanized the residents of Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, the nation’s first public housing projects, to fight for the removal of asbestos in their homes, by first understanding many of their other frustrations, such as unemployment.

Throughout his campaign and entering his presidency, Obama has consistently focused on listening to the concerns of the American people. Upon winning the election he launched the Website Change.gov (www.change.gov), allowing for an exchange of dialogue and ideas, and he has also gathered an eclectic group of advisers who represent a cross section of the American public.

Corporate Lesson: Having strong communication skills is a hallmark quality of leadership. Knowing how to articulate goals is imperative, but listening is an important part of engaging employees and inspiring colleagues to action. “Listening is a discipline,” writes John Baldoni, author of Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results (AMACOM; $21.95), “Experienced leaders know that listening is not a passive process; it requires energy, time, and most of all, commitment to do it.”


When Obama presided over the Harvard Law Review in 1990, racial issues such as affirmative action and faculty diversity polarized the faculty and student body at the law school. Berenson admits he was part of the “hearty band of politically conservative students on the Review” and

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  • p.s. gary

    This article is extremely helpful and to say that it is outstanding marks my penchant for understatement. Reluctantly, I must confess I find myself thrust into a leadership position and with all due modesty and humility I do not really see myself as any sort of leader.
    Nevertheless, I assume the responsibility and this article helps to empower, encourage and inspire me to do a much better job than I ever did. President Obama’s success is quite evident. Now I want to try to implement his methods where I am now.

  • Alice

    I found this article to be very helpful. I have been in leadership roles for years. This article helped me look at some things I must change in my leadership style. I will immediately begin practicing the leadership styles mentioned in this article to make myself a better leader, but most importantly, to empower those that I work with for the success of the organization and the team.