Betsy Myers On Barack Obama's Most Potent Leadership Quality

Betsy Myers was teaching at Harvard when she met then-Sen. Barack Obama. She soon turned her life upside down to become his presidential campaign COO—in a large part because she was intrigued by his unique leadership capabilities. Here's what she learned.

I met Barack Obama for the first time in 2005, when David Gergen and I took a group of about two dozen Harvard students to Washington for our annual Zuckerman Fellowship trip. Funded by Mort Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News & World Report, this program is for students who are pursuing joint degrees in public policy along with business, law, or medicine, and are keenly interested in learning what goes on in Washington. Over a period of three days, the students have the opportunity to meet Hill staff, people from think tanks and government posts, press, and members of Congress.

For this year's trip, a fifteen-minute visit with Senator Obama was on our agenda, and I was curious about what words of wisdom he would share in his brief moments with the students. I remember thinking it hadn't been that long ago that he had been here himself, as a Harvard Law student.

The group sat down in the senator's office, and a few minutes later he walked in with a big smile and welcomed the students enthusiastically. He launched into a story about his 2000 congressional campaign, sharing with them what it had felt like to lose that race to incumbent Bobby Rush, about the mistakes he had made and how much the experience had humbled him.

"And it got worse," he admitted. "When I tried to get to Los Angeles to attend the Democratic Convention, I got only as far as the Chicago airport—and my credit card was declined." The senator looked around at the two dozen faces. "Not only was I broke, but my wife was really mad at me."

The students laughed, and he laughed too.

"It was a low point in my life. But here I am, five years later, a U.S. senator."

His message was clear: we all skin our knees; what counts is how we pick ourselves up, learn from our mistakes, and move forward.

It struck me that he could have spent those minutes talking about his life as a senator or discussing policy or legislative matters. He could have wowed these students with stories of his successes at the Harvard Law Review, in the Illinois legislature, or on the Chicago streets as a community organizer. Instead, he shared with them about a time in his life when he had failed.

It struck me how comfortable he was in his own skin. He knew who he was, and he was not trying to be anyone else.

The Trait That Mattered Most

A year and a half later, I found myself going to work for Senator Obama's presidential campaign as chief operations officer. There was something about his leadership style that intrigued me. It was less about whether he would win or lose the race and more about the possibility of offering the world a different picture of how a leader behaves, with his message about civility, collaboration, compromise, and embracing our commonality. This was the message of his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. Was this who he really was, I wondered, and if so, what would that look like on the national political stage?

It was an intriguing opportunity—and I also knew it was a job that would turn my life upside down. It would mean leaving my position at Harvard's Kennedy School for Government, a job I loved and that still offered much growth, as well as leaving my husband, Rob, and our 4½-year-old daughter for long stretches of time.

There's a reason most campaign staffers are in their twenties. Political campaigns are a demanding business, an exhausting, all-out marathon. I'd been there: I'd worked on campaign staffs in my twenties, and had been at the White House during President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. But my life was different now, and there was no denying how difficult this could be on my family—how could I say yes? But I believed it could be an extraordinary moment for our country—how could I say no?

What tipped the scales and made my decision clear was the fact that Senator Obama seemed to embody a number of key leadership traits that I felt the world needed, and especially this: he was authentic.

At a senior staff planning meeting in Washington a few weeks later, Obama made a statement that crystallized for me that this had been the right decision.

"I know this will be a long road," said the senator, now candidate, to the twenty of us seated around the table. "If I am who I am and we win, great. And if I am who I am and we lose, then so be it. But don't ask me to change who I am to win this thing."

Barack Obama was who he said he was, and that mattered.

How to Take the Lead

Authenticity simply means finding "the real me" within ourselves and being comfortable in our own skin. When you step into who you truly are, you access a source of inexhaustible power. People see you as real, and that causes them to feel a level of trust and confidence that no amount of spin or PR can possibly manufacture.

Do you put energy into trying to live up to others' expectations? Do you feel yourself sometimes trying to be the person your parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, employees, or others think you should be? Remember that people trust you most when you are genuine—when you show up as who you truly are.

From TAKE THE LEAD by Betsy Myers. Copyright © 2011 by Betsy Myers. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

[Image: Flickr user Barack Obama]

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  • stevec77

    "His message was clear: we all skin our knees; what counts is how we pick ourselves up, learn from our mistakes, and move forward. "
    I stopped reading his article after this line because we know what Obama did to 'move forward' and we should not glorify or teach our youth that such behavior is EVER morally acceptable. Obama would not want the public to know the truth either.

    We know about Chicago's notorious political machine. To win you make you make deals with the devil(s) who control it. To win over Chicago's power brokers, you get down in the gutter with them. You play their game. Obama engaged in the requisite lying, obfuscation, dirty tricks, calculated betrayals. 

    No, he is no saint, few who seek office are but, DO NOT hold him up as a paragon of virtue such as his overcoming adversity anecdote implies. We must suffer the dirty, soul killing methods politicians employ to gain office. I hate stories like this and what they say about our society. Its sad that Fast Company's otherwise great journalism is co-opted to spread this trash.

  • Steve Krulick

    ‎"The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." -- Jean Giraudoux (1882 - 1944)
      Any serious and objective investigation of Obama suggests that being "real" or "authentic" may be his least verifiable quality. Sociopaths can easily be "comfortable in their own skin," and even believe their own BS as they charm with self-deprecation and glibness.

  • Steve Krulick

    And it seems that Ms. Myers is easily mesmerized and charmed by slick grifters like both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which says more about her "followship" qualities than their leadership ones.

  • Bob L

    Well, this must be part of Fast Company's plan to re-elect Obama. The author is either delusional or an Obama acolyte. Maybe both. There is nothing authentic about that man. He lied in his own memoirs about his own past! The author's contention is willful ignorance and cannot be taken seriously. You can like the man's ideology (I don't), and he is a clear ideologue, the very definition in fact. But leadership qualities? As a consultant I use Obama as an example of how a person with no discernible leadership skills or inherent leadership qualities can rise to the office of president. A person whose consistent appeal is to people's basest nature is the very antithesis of a leader.

  • Ed Weaterall

    Hi Betsy,

    Who we are is an amazing gift and it is what makes us unique, people then connect and decide themselves if they want to follow. Where I work our leader, Kevin Allen, describes this as core - and it is what got me the job I am in today (I am the quirky person he mentions).

    I have always been myself and accepted not everyone will like me and this has served me very well in life. Too often young people are told they need to be like this or that (grown up) but I tell my children they can be whoever they want to be. 

  • Luciana

    Betsy, I agree your definition of leadership. However Mr Obama is far from any of the traits of leadership much less authenticity.

  • Carolyn

    It seems kind of odd that you can comment on someone's authenticity with any authority if you haven't met him, much less worked with/for him as the author has.

  • Tsthoe

    Luciana: Whatever. He is far from perfect, but hardly what you describe either...dont let your obviously rigid ideology trap your brain.