Transformational Leadership: Obama’s Eight Points

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 09/20/06

Those of you who aren’t Barackoholics, never fear — this site isn’t about to turn into the Obamablog.  What I’m trying to get across through my constant hammering-home of the transformational-leadership meme is not that hero-worship of any particular leader is advisable, but that the mechanics of mass hero-worship are beneficial for society as a whole.  I’ll be working up the historical evidence for this claim in future installments.  (In her excellent comment on my Frontier Politics diary, Diane W has begun a credible line of attack on this argument.)

I see Obama not as a hero but as a teacher, an academically-trained role model from whom other Democratic politicians — and the scholars like me who follow such things — can learn the nuts and bolts of transformational leadership.  With that in mind, I’m on the lookout for any articles that provide an insight into the inner workings of Obama’s mind and leadership style.  Jacob Weisberg’s article in the latest edition of Men’s Vogue is just chock full of it.

So much good stuff to quote from here, but I’ll start with the most easily-definable trait of transformational leadership: 1) interest in being a transformational leader.

[Obama] recalls walking recently through a corridor of the Capitol Hilton, which is filled with portraits of all 43 presidents, and pondering their careers. “You go through and you think, ‘Who are these guys?’ There are—what?—maybe ten presidents in our history out of 40-something who you can truly say led the country? And then there are 30-odd who just kind of did their best. And so—I guess my point is—just being the president is not a good way of thinking about it.”

Obama is well aware of the obstacles he would face, including his limited experience in foreign policy, and Hillary Clinton’s embedded position as front-runner. It’s also not lost on him that much of the next president’s job will be “cleaning up the mess,” which is as close as he comes to trashing the Bush administration. “My attitude about something like the presidency is that you don’t want to just be the president,” he continues. “You want to change the country. You want to make a unique contribution. You want to be a great president.”

Another building block — linked to the first — is 2) a desire to emulate other transformational leaders.

In his remarks, Obama linked himself to literary and political figures who had God on their minds and in their voices. “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice,” he argued. “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity.” …

“If you read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson—I’m not Johnson, but I’m fascinated by him—there’s a piece of him in me,” Obama says, leaning forward. “That kind of hunger—desperate to win, please, succeed, dominate—I don’t know any politician who doesn’t have some of that reptilian side to him. But that’s not the dominant part of me. On the other hand, I don’t know that it was the dominant part of—” his voice suddenly trails off as he motions behind him to a portrait of Lincoln, the self-invented lawyer, writer, and politician from Illinois. “This guy was pretty reflective,” he says, offering a sly smile.

So much for intent.  Now, let’s throw in 3) a heroic life story of the type described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a “monomyth.”  Obama’s got that too, in book form.  Weisberg writes:

…Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, sprang from his small-scale celebrity as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He sank years of his life and hours of self-examination into the writing project, and came back with a gripping autobiographical narrative. …

The senator recounted his own path from a secular, multicultural household to the spiritual home he found in the black church. As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, Obama had put together demonstrations and registered voters alongside Christian leaders who honored the civil-rights tradition of social change. His faith-grounded fellow activists, he explained, “saw that I knew their Book, that I shared their values, that I sang their songs.” But, he said, they also “sensed that part of me that remained detached and removed, that I was an observer in their midst.” He continued, “In time, I came to realize that something was missing for me as well, that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.” Though Obama had long been skeptical of organized religion, he gradually came to embrace it “as a choice, not an epiphany.”

Obama’s comments here hint at another transformational characteristic: 4) the embrace of faith as a related and interwoven phenomenon that, like politics, is essential to the rebirth of society:

When I asked Obama whether he believed in God before joining the Reverend Wright’s Church, something I wondered after reading his first book, he responded with a comment you’d wait a long time to hear from any other senator. He quoted a favorite line from a poem by Borges:

I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.

“I think Borges is talking to a mistress or lover,” Obama said. “But that kernel that is untouched—that doesn’t traffic in the trivial or the mean or the petty—that sounds like God to me.”

Other transformational leadership requisites exhibited by Obama include 5) intelligence:

Of all of the assets that make Obama such an appealing figure to Democrats—his reflective intellect, his departure from the familiar paths of racial politics, his good looks and easy manner—it is his writer’s voice that most distinguishes him as a political figure. Many of the nation’s greatest leaders—Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln—were of course men of letters as well as candidates and officeholders. But the demands of a modern political career—the fund-raising, the constant travel, the need to respond to a 24-hour news cycle—seem to preclude collecting one’s thoughts in such a polished and engaging way. The Senate, in particular, breeds the kind of pomposity and egotism that ruins thoughtful prose. Senators publish a lot of books, but most are memorabilia, not political literature.

A few highbrow politicians—Eugene McCarthy, Mario Cuomo, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—have managed to write seriously. But much of this body of literature conveys the message that the writers, whose careers never went as far as their admirers thought they could, are too good for the dirty business of politics. Obama seems determined not to fall into either trap—growing so infatuated with his own reflection that he can’t succeed as a leader, or charging ahead so hard that there’s no space left for his emotional and intellectual life.

6) Authenticity:

Obama says he wrote The Audacity of Hope on his own, as he does anything important, at his Washington apartment, late at night. “What I’ve had to do when I get home at eight or nine o’clock is start writing,” he says.

7) Lack of powerlust:

“I wasn’t one of these folks who at the age of five said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a U.S. senator,’ ” Obama continues. “The motivation for my work has been more rooted in the need to live up to certain values that, more than anybody, my mother instilled in me, and to figure out how you reconcile those values with a world that is broken apart by class and race and nationality. And so I guess I have on occasions had to push myself or I’ve been pushed into service, not always because I thought it was fun or that it was preferable to sitting down and watching a ball game, but because I felt it was necessary.”

And finally, that most elusive quality of all, the one that can be defined visually by Abraham Lincoln’s strained face and haggard frame: 8) gravity:

For the most part, Obama appears to wear the burden of others’ dreams lightly. They hang loosely on his shoulders, like the dark suits that compliment his slender frame. But beneath his open, companionable exterior, one detects a certain brooding quality, a concern etched into the sharp lines of his face about whether he’s up to the tasks ahead.

Eight points, eight lessons to be learned by the Democratic leadership of today.  And Barack Obama, as his law students can attest, is an excellent teacher.


One Response to Transformational Leadership: Obama’s Eight Points

  1. […] go for the late knockout. And if President Obama wants to become the transformational leader he has signaled he wants to be, then at some point he has to begin to look for a few […]

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