Harvard Business Online

How to Communicate Like Barack Obama


Posted on Leadership at Work: Monday January 19, 2009 11:18 AM

President Barack Obama is rightly considered an exemplary communicator. His rhetorical skills, an ability to paint pictures with words so that others not only see what he sees but feel it too, are what catapulted him into the national political consciousness. However, in the time since his election, the world has gotten a close-up view of the variety of communication styles that Obama utilizes to connect with others.

An examination of his tactics is essential to understanding his leadership style, and reveals useful techniques for leaders in other walks of life:

Challenge. "Yes We Can" was the campaign theme. It served as Obama's call to action as well as his putting people on notice that if they wanted a different America, they would have to work for it. He would lead the charge, but he would need their support. That challenge will be put to the ultimate test in the future, when he will need to make tough decisions that will irritate his base of supporters. When that occurs, he will need to challenge them as he challenged the status quo.

Question. As a former law professor, Obama loves to wrestle with ideas. He likes to hear all sides of an issue. He wants to provoke others to bring him contrary points of view. One reason he can reach across the aisle is because he actually listens to what others have to say. That ability to bridge ideology will be crucial to building bipartisan support for his initiatives.

Cheerlead. While there is great historical significance to Obama's retracing of Abraham Lincoln's train journey from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., as Candy Crowley of CNN reported, Obama wanted to get audiences, as well as the nation, excited about his administration and the challenges that it faces. Obama wants to use this sense of hope as political leverage for the tough choices he and his team must make.

Be real. Obama is a sports fan and has not been hesitant about voicing his opinions about the need for a college football playoff. He is also a family man who is not shy about expressing his love for his wife and daughters. The image conveyed is one of a guy who, in many respects, is just like us—and as such, knows the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

Decide. As welcoming of dissenting view points as Obama may be, the way he ran his campaign and his early dealings with Congress, have demonstrated that he knows what he wants and he's not afraid to use his political capital get it. Obama's successful pushing for the release of the second part of TARP funds is a key example.

Inspire. In a pre-Inaugural Address at the Lincoln Memorial, Obama recalled Lincoln's example and rhetoric by saying, "What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry—an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels." If past is any indication, Obama is likely to invoke America's history of overcoming major obstacles as evidence and impetus to make the tough decisions and do the heavy lifting.

There is something else about Obama that is critical to his ability to lead in crisis—his composure. Speaking on Larry King, long time Democratic strategist James Carville noted how Obama's demeanor served to radiate assurance, something from which Americans in crisis can draw comfort.

Girding all of these styles is a rigorous sense of discipline. We rarely witness him going off-message; he is not shy about keeping things close to the vest, especially to the media. He and his aides stay on message, and that is one reason the Obama campaign succeeded.

Obama has the verbal fluency to make his points crystal clear. His challenge, as it is for all leaders, is to ensure that his words serve as prompts for action rather than rhetorical flourishes.

Or as they say, words are cheap; actions are what counts.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge


Tim Cook's Reboot
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus