Barack Obama: How to be a leader of leaders

Former US president discusses the importance of diversity and collective values in leadership, as well as their role in overcoming concerns around the technology-driven information age

Barrack Obama in conversation with Marc Benioff
Barrack Obama in conversation with Marc Benioff


Being a leader is not a matter of having your name up in lights, making speeches or corralling power at the top. It’s identifying the power in other people and unleashing it, former US president, Barack Obama, believes.

The inspirational politician, author and founder of the Obama Foundation delved into the subjects of leadership, the role of modern institutions and companies play in overcoming growing societal issues through globalisation and technology, and his own efforts to amplify leaders of leaders during a one-hour conversation with Salesforce chairman and co-founder, Marc Benioff, at Dreamforce.  

From his early days as a community organiser through to the Oval Office, Obama said he’s been working to identify the talent of others and harness it collectively, using the force of his values to attract and foster such talent. He and Michelle Obama are now working to realise, support and network young leaders globally through the Obama Foundation.

“If you’re good at identifying that power, you will inevitably have influence because a lot of people will want to work with you and collaborate,” Obama told attendees. “You’ll build a culture that is all about mission and getting things done.”  

Across young leaders he’s being exposed to through the Obama Foundation, the former US president said he was encouraged by the common threads of empathy and compassion for others, a sense of agency, and a willingness to empower others. And it’s these ingredients Obama sees tackling some of the greatest issues of the age.

For Obama, the top three issues are climate change, extreme inequality turbocharged by globalisation and technology, and the cultural trust crisis and potentially dangerous polarisation of beliefs in the information revolution.

“People remark on the polarisation of our politics and rightfully so. People rightfully see challenges like climate change, conflict, mass refugees and feel things are spinning out of control,” Obama continued. “But behind that, I also see this sense of anxiety, ruthlessness and uncertainty. Some of this is fed by globalisation and technology - there’s an anger fed by some technologies.

“Part of the goal of solving big problems is it’s not just a matter of finding the right technical solution; it’s also figuring out how to restore some sense of our common values.”  

Obama called on societal institutions, from corporations to political, religious and community groups, to help restore the values balance.

“Getting this rebalance and a better handle on what satisfies us and what we care about is an important component to political, civic, business and religious leadership,” he argued. “Right now, a lot of global culture, in part fed by social media technology, is chasing after the wrong things.

“So much anger and frustration has to do with issue of status... Yet so much has to do with a sense of what would satisfy us if we just got quiet for a second.”  

According to Obama, the latest information age, like many disruptive technologies over the centuries, potentially represents “a dangerous moment” for society.

“Part of what happens is people don’t know what’s true and what’s not, what to believe and not to believe,” he said. “They’re suddenly confronted with things they didn’t have to deal with before as they were operating in isolation.

“The big challenge right now is how to get a common conversation and culture going.”

Obama pointed out both he and Salesforce gained unprecedented levels of societal influence thanks to the reach given by the Internet.

“I can project my voice, you can take your technology and apply it everywhere,” Obama said to Benioff. “It gives us a huge market, but it has also amplified inequalities. So much political turmoil right now has to do with people legitimately feeling insecure because of those disruptions.

“We have not adjusted social institutions to make sure we benefit from the huge rise in productivity that comes from technology. How do we modulate it so every kid has a good school, and no one is homeless on the street? And those who have been lucky are giving back in serious way to pave the path for the next generation of success? For wealthy countries, how are we working with countries less wealthy? Because it’s in our self-interest over time. If you have failed states, mass migration and societal collapse, it will affect us.”  

Despite this, Obama, said he still believed the Internet can be a powerful tool to “finally see each other and unify us”.

“Right now, it’s splintering. It’s all solvable, but it takes a lot of work and focus to do it. Without core beliefs and values that see you through those disagreements and challenges, you struggle,” he added.  

Values-based leadership

Obama also put the alignment to values at the heart of strong modern leadership and his own ability to corral an “extraordinary” group of individuals to work with him in the White House.

“It’s the reason why we didn’t have serious scandals while I was there - we had screw ups, but we were there for the right reasons,” he commented.  

Collective leadership and contribution, and recognising the expertise of others, became key success factors.

“The environment I tried to create and that worked for me, was getting people who are amazing,” Obama said. “I’m secure enough to orchestrate the conversation so we stay on track. I set the vision and resolved differences based on analysis, but I never feel the answer has to always come out of my mouth.”  

As an example, Obama pointed to the Gulf Oil spill, one of the biggest environmental disasters in history, and trying to find a solution to plugging the oil leak. It was in fact his US Secretary of Energy, Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Chu, who worked out a solution.

“I can’t take credit for figuring out how to shut it down, I can take credit for appointing Steven as my Secretary of Energy. I take a sense of comfort from having folks like that,” Obama said.  

“A big mistake, whether it’s in a CEO or leadership position… is wanting people who defer. As a consequence, you can’t then bring in leaders of leaders. You also create a culture where all power flows from the top.”

Yet in dealing with the many difficult issues passing over his desk in the White House, Obama said there was no way he could solve things by himself.

“But if you’ve set up a process with leaders, who are treating staff as resources, treating them respectfully, and who have diversity, I have confidence we have the best data and all perspectives represented, and we’re looking at it from every angle,” he said. “So when I’m still making a difficult decision, I can sleep easy at night. Even if it doesn’t work.

“No one could have made a better decision given the information and circumstances we were in, as I trusted the process I’d created.”

As a result, Obama advocated diversity in any leadership approach.

“Diversity is not charity, it’s not something you do to be nice – if you’re running a business right now and… you don’t have diversity round the table, you are missing a marker,” he said. “You are misunderstanding how your message is being received. If you don’t have women around your table, you’re not going to succeed.

“You empower everybody, respect everyone and create a network of different perspectives to ensure you’re engaging effectively.”    

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Dreamforce as a guest of Salesforce.

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