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Five leadership lessons from meeting Obama

On the evening of Thursday 21st of April 2016, my phone buzzed. I looked down, finding myself staring at an email headed with the US State Department's official seal. "Thank you for your patience," it read. "You are confirmed to attend the Town Hall with President Barack Obama." It took a moment to sink in before I scrambled for my laptop, booking last minute flights from Ireland to London.

It wasn't just the thought that this would be the first and last time I would have a chance to meet the historic man in his presidential role (that was partly it), or that this would be his last official visit to the UK. This was to be Obama's only public appearance of his state visit and he wanted to spend it listening to and speaking with us, [US Ambassador to the UK] Matthew Barzun's 'Young Leaders UK' (or YLUKers). Excited was an understatement.

Getting to the venue early on the day, I managed to secure front and centre seats. Over the course of several hours, people flooded in until the room was packed to the rafters, including a smattering of celebrities like Annie Lennox and Benedict Cumberbatch, who sat barely 10 seats across from me. Hyper alert Secret Service dotted themselves around strategically, glaring at attendees and daring them to try something. The world's media got colour balance checks in for their cameras and an expectant hush fell.

When Obama made it to the stage he was relaxed, confident and playful. His introductory remarks (whilst I'm sure carefully crafted by his speechwriters) were delivered in such a way that you would have been forgiven for thinking he was speaking off the cuff.

Paying tribute to the generation sat before him Obama was glowing in his praise of the UK's Young leaders. He said that we saw "...integration and globalisation not as threats but as opportunities -- for education, and exploration, and employment, and exchange" and "differences of pluralism and diversity not as a curse, but as a great gift." He even cracked a few jokes at the US-UK special relationship: "We’ve had our quarrels. There was that whole tea incident... and the British burned my house down."

Buttered up by these kind words and after the preamble came the real treat. Direct, no holes barred interaction with the most powerful man in the world. We weren't briefed, we weren't censored. We had carte Blanche to ask Obama anything and hear his candid thoughts.

Here are my top five takeaways, mostly delivered in the words of the President himself:

1. Listening is as important as speaking

"I think it's very useful as a leader to be able to -- particularly on complex issues -- to sit around a table and hear a lot of different points of view, and be able to get to what's the nub of the issue, what's the heart of the problem, what's the essential conflict that we're trying to resolve, and get everybody to see the problem the same -- see what the problem is... setting a direction requires also listening to what is it that's important to people."

One of the things that struck me most about Obama was that his intangible charisma wasn't all about his delivery, but rather his ability to listen. When someone was asking a question, he wasn't simply passive, stoic or waiting to speak. He genuinely seemed to connect, empathise and carefully process anything that someone had to say to him. You really felt that he cared what people had to say, and always took pause before constructing his reply.

2. It's ok to compromise

"Compromise does not mean surrendering what you believe. It just means that you are recognising the fact that these people who disagree with you have dignity and worth too."

"There's this massive divergence that's taking place in terms of just what the agreed-upon facts and assumptions are that we're talking about. And that does make it harder to compromise... if you spend time with people who just agree with you on any particular issue, that you become even more extreme in your convictions because you're never contradicted and everybody just mutually reinforces their perspective. That's why I think it is so important for all the young people here to seek out people who don't agree with you. That will teach you to compromise. It will also help you, by the way, if you decide to get married."

Speaking perhaps with Obamacare in mind, the President gave the following illustration on his decision making process and have to settle on watered down outcomes made in a divided congress:

"If I’m sitting with Congress, and I have the opportunity to get half a million more kids into an early childhood education program, even though I know that that will 2 million who need it out of the program, but the alternative is none, I’ll take half a million, right? And I can look at myself in the mirror and feel good about the 500,000 that I'm helping, knowing that the next round of budget negotiations that we have, I'm going to go for another half a million, and I'm going to go for another half a million after that."

But he was keen to emphasise that people should remain true to their core beliefs:

"I would distinguish between compromising on principles and compromising in getting things done in the here and now. And what I mean by that is I am uncompromising on the notion that every person, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, has a dignity and worth and have to be treated equally."

3. Do the right thing over doing things right

"I see a lot of organisations... working on the wrong thing or they're distracted from the essential issue. Somebody once said, it's more important to do the right thing than to do things right. And what they meant was you can hack away and build this amazing path through the jungle, but if you're headed in the wrong direction then it's a waste of time. So you've got to make sure that people understand what it is that we're trying to solve."

I found this an interesting insight into Obama's mind. Tactical thinkers focus on “doing something,” but they often don’t think before springing into action; so oftentimes, their action is ineffective, and perhaps unnecessary. On the other hand, Obama who seems to be more strategic in his thinking focuses on the big picture. The drawback on this approach is decision paralysis and failure to take action at all. It's a shame we didn't get to probe him further on this.

4. Change takes time

"We've had failures, and occasionally we've been blocked, but this goes back to one of the themes of my opening statement, and it's important for all the young people here to remember. Change takes time. And oftentimes, what you start has to then be picked up by your successors or the next generation."

This line of thinking looped back to Obama's thoughts on compromise and why change in a polarised world. Obama sees change as gradual and this is why he is happy with his legacy despite not achieveing all that he set out to achieve. He was optimistic also, reminding the UK's Young Leaders that if there were any time in history to lead a fulfilling life and make a difference, it would be this moment right now.

5. Leadership is all about teamwork

"Anybody who wants to be a leader, I would advise you to spend a lot of time thinking about how am I helping other people do great things. Because, as President of the United States, I am dealing with so many issues and I can't be expert on everything, and I can't be everywhere. And the one thing I can do is assemble a team of people who are really good and really smart and really committed, and care about their mission, and have integrity, and then give them the tools, or get rid of the barriers, or help coach them so that they can do a great job."

Well, that's about all we had time for. Just over an hour after Obama was introduced, he had to head on to his next engagement. He did a quick round with some of the YLUKers attending and stopped to shake hands and change words with me. To my great fortune I managed to capture the exact frame that that this happened, a moment shared with some 272,000 others on Snapchat's official feed that followed the president's visit.

Time will tell what his legacy will be, but it was an honour and privilege to hear him speak on subjects as diverse as Climate Change and LGTB rights. I hope you find some gems of wisdom in his words also!

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