What Leaders Can Learn from Obama and the GOP

Posted 02.01.2010

Early last week, my 10th grade son asked my wife and me for ideas on a speech he has to write for his composition class. The assignment is to write a speech that fills in the blank on, “I have a dream that…”  After thinking about it for a few moments, my suggestion was “I have a dream that our political leaders will actually work together for the good of the country rather than always positioning themselves for their next election.”  He liked that idea and is writing the speech. (Every so often, you come up with an idea that your teenager thinks is a good one. Savor those moments.)

So, I have to say that I saw a glimmer of my dream late last week when I watched the highlights of President Obama and House Republicans having a spirited, substantive and civil conversation about the issues of the day on live television. The setting was a House Republican conference in Baltimore. For the most part, both the President and the Members of Congress were impressive. The Republicans asked tough questions in a firm but civil tone. The President listened and usually answered multi-part questions point by point. 

The following 3:00 minute clip from C-SPAN via You Tube is pretty representative of the entire 82 minute meeting.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see more of this in the future. You may say I’m a dreamer, but more televised sessions like this in which everyone feels compelled to act like grown-ups because they’re on live TV might be what we need to raise the level of discourse and problem solving.

In the meantime, I think there are a few specific things that leaders can learn from how both the President and the Members handled themselves. It’s a fairly common occurrence for leaders in organizations to have the need to address a skeptical audience. To get some good ideas on how to handle it, watch some excerpts from the entire event and look for the following:

Setting the tone:  Because of the role they’re in, senior leaders almost always have the opportunity to set the tone for the meeting.  If the leader shows up as calm and thoughtful, the audience is more likely to show up as calm and thoughtful.

Doing your homework:  If you’re going to take questions from a skeptical audience, you need to be ready with your take on the facts and know what points you want to get across.  An open meeting on important issues is not the time to wing it.

Listening with your whole body:  Your facial expressions, your head nods, your focus on the speaker and how you position your body toward the speaker all work together to convey how much you’re listening.  If you show the right mix, you don’t just hear the question, you convey respect for the speaker.

Being tough on the issues, soft on the people:  You can make your points and hold firm to your conviction without taking tough questions personally or making the questioner into a “bad guy.”  The old line about we can disagree without being disagreeable matters a lot. When, like the President and the Congress are, you’re going to be working together for a long period of time, it’s important to treat each other well if you actually want to get anything done.

Showing up: You can’t have the conversation if you don’t show up. Kudos to the Republican leadership for inviting the President and kudos to him for showing up.  Kudos to both for engaging in the way that they did.  It’s nice to have our leaders show up as role models for the rest of us.  Please do more of that!

If you had a chance to watch some or all of the President’s conversations with the House Republicans, what were your takeaways?  Any leadership lessons for you in the exchange?