In the midst of the protests happening around the country highlighting police brutality and racial injustice, former President Barack Obama launched a discussion on reimagining policing. Watching his talk, I felt inspired, engaged and hopeful. I walked away convinced that what’s being proposed are among the steps we can take to begin to heal as a nation.

Noticing the impact that his talk had on me, I got curious about how, exactly, he had created that experience. That inspired me to watch again, this time through the lens of the leadership lessons we can glean from it.  The rest of this post focuses there, since this is a blog devoted to leadership. If it happens to spark your interest in the public policy aspects along the way, that’s great, too.

Obama gave these remarks to kick off and build support for an initiative – something you might be called upon to do at some point as a leader. He’s giving them at a time when feelings are running high and people have grave concerns about the future. That’s another situation you may face at some point in your leadership career, as organizations can also undergo periods of massive uncertainty and change. There are useful lessons here on both of these fronts.

Here’s the video:  The part I’m reviewing are his remarks from 7:36 to 23:20

Here’s what made this brief talk effective:

  • He begins by acknowledging how people are feeling right now. He points out that this is a moment that is epic, profound. As a leader, this is one of the most important things you can do to truly engage your people. Meet them where they are. Say what’s happening. Say what you see.
  • He acknowledges people who are experiencing the situation more profoundly than others – in this case the families of the victims. He speaks directly to them and acknowledges their pain. He makes it a personal connection, “Michelle and I…” By bringing his wife into the comment, he’s signaling that this is him as a person, not just him as a public figure. Ultimately leadership requires that you connect with your people not only from your role, but also as a person, so that they feel seen by you. When you do this, you speak for yourself, and also for the group – giving voice to the feelings others may also be having.
  • He puts what’s happening now into context, connecting current events to the history that led to this moment. He’s clear about the pathway from then to now. One of the ways leaders can help people solve problems is to help them see where the problems came from. What’s the history? What are the systems that have contributed to the problem? What decisions were made along the way, or what policies were put in place, that have led to where we are now? Seeing the past and the patterns gives useful perspective that can inspire new solutions. When you’re launching initiatives of your own, be thinking about these questions so that you can provide relevant background and context.
  • He gives voice to hope – and then he backs up that feeling with specifics. In this case, his hope stems from seeing the work of young people who are stepping up to make a difference. Hope brings light to the darkness. Without hope, there’s no energy for change. When you’re leading a group that is at risk of giving up, finding hope – and articulating reasons for that hope – will be critical to moving forward.
  • He addresses the people he sees as key to turning the situation around. He starts with young people, whose energy is driving the protests. He acknowledges their experiences, their wants. He reflects back to them the pain and frustration they are feeling. I am not a young person but I imagine that they felt seen and heard in that moment. And then he addresses law enforcement, acknowledging their experiences. Reminding everyone listening that ethical police are as much against police brutality as anyone. By doing this, he is explicitly creating a coalition. This is not an either/or, us/them problem and there won’t be a solution if it gets framed that way. As a leader, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of taking sides. It can be easy to see one group as “the problem” and another group as the bearers of the solution. That doesn’t work. When the us/them dynamic is in play, solutions are very hard to find. There are very few problems in systems of any size – organizations as well as societies – that can be solved from just one side of the equation.
  • In acknowledging others, he gives specifics – relating to how they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, what they’re doing. It’s not an empty acknowledgement. He goes all the way into to their world, to show that he truly sees them.
  • He offers specific information about what has been done already that could be built on. He doesn’t assume we already know about past initiatives. He describes them and the results they’ve generated. Leaders could learn a lot from this. People need reminders about work that has already been done, as well as initiatives that are already underway, so that new solutions can build on the ground that’s already been covered. Don’t assume your people already know about those things. Turnover, and lack of institutional memory can almost guarantee they won’t.
  • He reframes a disempowering narrative. He notes that many have compared the current protests to events of the 1960s, and then offers a different perspective. He suggests we are in a different place now, and again gives specific observations to support his point-of-view. In any human system or organization it can be easy to feel like there hasn’t been any progress. “Here we are again.” By pointing out that what’s happening now isn’t exactly the same, he’s again offering hope and a sense of momentum. Both are important for sustaining the energy required for long-term change.
  • He offers specific direction. He suggests specific actions that people can take. This is key to getting any initiative off the ground. People have to know how the broad ideas of the initiative translate into specific actions they can take.

Those are the lessons I could see from this experience. I’m curious to hear if you picked up others? Or if you’ve seen other examples of leadership that we could unpack in future blogs? The lessons are all around us.

If you’re finding yourself wanting to deepen your own leadership skills, check out my webinar on leading in challenging times.

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