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Excellent Leadership is Innovation – Just Ask Obama

Even in a business blog, it is not possible to sit down on this historic morning to compose a piece about leadership and innovation without talking about Barack Obama. The Obama leadership equation for two years has been Obama = Change. He convinced enough Americans that he would deliver on the promise that he and his nationwide network of organizers absolutely routed the opposition on Election Day.

Even in a business blog, it is not possible to sit down on this historic morning to compose a piece about leadership and innovation without talking about Barack Obama. The Obama leadership equation for two years has been Obama = Change. He convinced enough Americans that he would deliver on the promise that he and his nationwide network of organizers absolutely routed the opposition on Election Day.

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What people were really saying, whether they realized it or not, was that what they wanted for a change was leadership. Because real leadership is always about moving forward in new and better ways.

In decoding Obama, I find that, while he is young and not entirely proven, he has the makings of one of the few fully complete leaders I have encountered in almost 20 years of studying and helping to develop leaders around the world. He embodies and exhibits all five of the leadership domains that research tells us are essential to world-class leadership no matter what the context. Here’s the simple analysis – I wish I had more space.

First, he had a strategy for going forward differently. In terms of the country, he proposed a 180 degree shift in our relationship with the rest of the world, and a tectonic internal shift in Americans’ relationship with each other. In terms of the campaign strategy, he built on the “grassroots” strategy that Howard Dean started, threw in a lot of ideas of his own and utilized the grassroots as never before seen.

Second, he executed on his campaign strategy. Internet fund raising at an average donation of $86 a pop, legions of community organizers – unprecedented. Flexible in emphasis depending on where the battles were raging, but always executing in complete alignment with the overall strategy and vision.

Third, he did nothing alone, and never pretended to. He created a national network of organizers like no one before him. In business, we call this “leading talent.” In real life, we call this top drawer leadership: inspiring not just “support” or “cooperation” but rabidly devoted fans that would literally put their lives on hold for the sake of the mission.

Fourth, he gave an entire population hope, not about dominating the global oil trade by whatever means necessary, but about the personal futures that they and their children might begin to expect if they are willing to co-create the future with him. Education, health care, becoming a more caring and sharing society that would use its own ingenuity to develop greener domestic energy sources to wean us off foreign oil. In business, we call this human capital management, but you get the picture.

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Fifth, he himself was the story of leadership as change. Anyone who read Dreams from My Father, his 1994 autobiography, was introduced to a person always willing to ask who am I, what do I stand for, why, and how do I get continuously better to deliver on my own promise to myself.

Ok, so according to our research, Obama fits the leadership bill to get elected. However, it is one thing to get elected; it’s another to deliver on the leadership promise of hope and change. 

What do excellent leaders do if not urge, cajole, persuade, discipline, plan, plot, educate, shame, harangue or otherwise propel themselves and others forward into a better future. Think of the leaders that Obama can learn from who had a vision and who delivered on it over time — Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Mother Theresa or Sheikh Zayed, visionary founder of the modern UAE. Different styles but same basic result: positive, beneficial change that matters to the person, the organization, and the society. The truly effective leader, then, is always able to give us a new and innovative vision for the future, invest in the people who will help to deliver on that vision, keep the stakeholders engaged and, finally, through this, consistently deliver on the promises. 

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