Exploring Human Potential

President-Elect Obama, Change and Positive Leadership

Posted on | November 5, 2008 | No Comments

Good reason to hope

Yesterday, a former colleague and fellow child of the 60’s asked me to participate on a HHS consensus group exploring caregiving. I responded, "For many of us who were involved in the 60’s, and saw our worst fears realized in the loss of our great leaders, the war and the terrible divisions, there has been a quiet hope that in our lifetime there would come a similar call to service. We of course are older now but just as passionate, and a bit more experienced. Both fear and indifference have been a problem over the past 8 years. Today’s results will define America’s readiness for change. I am ready to help in any way I can."

On March 25, 2008, I wrote a column here reflecting on Barack Obama’s historic speech on race in America

At the core of that speech was his belief, and mine,  that the time for a new dialogue about race in America had arrived. But as I listened in my car in a lot at a Home Depot that day, the force of something else hit me fully: For the first time in a long time, I realized I was listening to the rhetoric of positive leadership. In stark contrast to the rhetoric of fear – which our national leaders have wielded like a blunt instrument for years – Barack Obama’s message  was uniquely positive. Thirteen years before, I had written a book called "Positive Leadership" that explored the polarity between positive leadership and negative leadership. Now in its fourth edition, It explores the  personal values that distinguish positive leaders from negative leaders.

In Senator Obama’s speech, he said:

"The (Constitution) was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished…Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time…. I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren….The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation…It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper… I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected."

In 1995, I wrote:

"Positive leaders use all their natural skills to connect. Their actions seem effortless, though non-leaders find these traits difficult to replicate. Their secret is that they love people and feed off the contact. To touch and embrace is not reaching out for them, but pulling in. They are pleasers and find their own happiness in others’ smiles. They laugh easily. They are not Pollyannas, but courageous in surfacing difficult issues and combating collective fears which they do not fear themselves. They are personally secure, but not complacent. Rather, they are driven by passion for they believe strongly in many things. They freely expose their strengths and weaknesses. Their humanity is on full display."
"Negative leaders have great power in our world and in our daily lives because fear is a powerful currency. Fear is easy to exchange and easy to access. It can be counted on in most environments to draw an immediate response. The negative leader, when challenged about his methods, will frequently respond, ‘I’m just being brutally honest.’ Yet, as one man has said, these individuals ‘get more satisfaction from the brutality than from the honesty.’ Those who cower in fear also bear responsibility. They have not defined what will be the ethical limit for them. How far will they be pushed before resisting? The job of positive leadership involves not only confronting the source of fear, but also liberating its subjects."

"When positive leaders make a point, people listen and remember. These leaders possess exquisite timing, persistence and the unique ability to seize the moment. They are courageous, often opposing a majority point of view, but never without some certainty of a successful outcome. They pick their battles wisely and only when they believe that a significant issue is at stake. At those times, they hold on as tightly to an issue as a dog on a pants leg. This determination, combined with an aura of ‘being right most of the time,’ is a large part of their success. But their real ability to penetrate the mind and spirit lies in their verbal skill of painting vivid pictures that graphically display the potential good and bad outcomes of the decisions at hand. When their listeners ‘see it,’ they usually see it their way."

"Power is all about influence and what you do with that influence. The desire to define the agenda and move individuals to one point of view is universal. In fact, the dynamic tension that we commonly feel at home, at school, or at work, reflects our competitive instinct and desire to ‘carry the day’. But what distinguishes the positive leader is as much the process of influence as it is the final outcome of influence; for she recognizes that the end does not justify the means, since that final outcome is a product of the means or method and the end itself. Positive leaders are alert to opportunities to advance important goals, but consistently exercise the high road in that pursuit. They are confident but never over-confident, and they scrupulously avoid reckless competition. In the exercise of power, the positive leader’s rewards must be lasting rewards."

"Negativity is pervasive in our world. And negative leaders compete with positive leaders in every organization. In rapidly transforming industries, change adds fuel to the fires of fear, creating within the people a state of active receptivity to a negative message. Martin Luther King said, ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ But if positive leaders are to prevail, they must be vigilant. On the one hand they must create a vision for the future that guides and stabilizes transition, while on the other be prepared to challenge the negative messages of the day."

"Positive leaders are used to being initially underestimated; for on the surface, they may appear different, out of touch, and vulnerable. But beneath, they are focused and resilient, capable of laboring against great odds with little reinforcement. Their strength is a reflection of their unerring faith in a greater good. Their secret is that they find good in all, and are able to consistently forgive and seek forgiveness. They disarm and convert by their example. Their dreams expand to include the dreams of others. Their seemingly limitless energy streams in from those who love them and commit to regularly revitalizing them. But their lasting trait is a deeply seated confidence in themselves, for positive leaders like who they are."

"No matter how positive you are, you must confront uncertainty, for life and loss are interwoven. Positive leaders feel deeply and are as vulnerable as they are durable. Their responsiveness to crisis places them in great demand. Their ability to survive and thrive reflects a unique attitude toward loss. At their core, positive leaders are learners who seek out the lesson with each experience. They see the world as overflowing with opportunity for all and understand that delaying an opportunity in the interest of honoring more pressing obligations is not an opportunity forever lost. They have great faith and memory, which allows them to feel and experience the presence of loved ones even in their absence. Finally, they uniquely fill the voids in their lives, finding productive ways to contribute. The positive leader is at peace."

Now 7 months later, President-Elect  Obama finds himself, along with us, at a turning point in the history of this nation and this planet. Yesterday’s election has made it clear that we have decided to embrace change and explore what might be possible.  We have demonstrated to ourselves and to the world that as Americans we have the collective courage to take the risk to move ourselves, our institutions, and our nation in a different direction. It is time for us to harness our fear, and work together to make a difference in education, health, energy, finance and infrastructure. There is much to be done, but in relying on our new President, ourselves, and the goodness of the American people and people around the world, there is also good reason to hope.


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