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.
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.