Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Our Transformational President (2)

(President Obama with Aung San Suu Kyi in November, 2012)

I love this picture and have used it before. It shows Obama modeling an essential quality of the transformational leader - deep listening. Here's what poet David Whyte says about listening:

We speak only with the voices of those
we can hear ourselves
and the body has a voice
only for that portion
of the body of the world
it has learned to perceive.

It becomes a world itself
by listening hard
for the way it belongs.

There it can learn
how it must be
and what it must do.

From The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte in The House of Belonging

My hypothesis is straightforward: to be a transformational leader, you must first undergo your own transformation. Listening is the essential element that begins and undergirds this growth process. Listen to yourself. Listen "hard for the way you belong." You must discover your "place of belonging", so you know "what you must do" and "how you must be". This is poetry and it is true.
  • Listen to others, to yourself, to the world to undergo your own transformation.
  • When you know your place of belonging, your transformation (one of them) has occurred.
  • Suddenly, like a revelation, you know how you must be, what you must do.
  • And then you have the interior capacity to be a space maker for others. Through your listening, you create sanctuary for others - as Obama is doing for Aung San Suu Kyi above.
  • You quite literally listen others into speech.
Obama has done the inner work of personal transformation (Dreams from my Father). He knows where and how he belongs. He knows how he must be and what he must do. He is a listener, a space maker, and he is being both of these things on the national and international stage.

Remnick doesn't use this language in his wonderful article, but he gives us an unhurried look into the President's way of looking at the world and how he engages with the host of problems he faces. Here are the qualities I see in the President, the ones that, in my opinion, give him the capacity to effect transformational change. And I think one can pick up on most of these in Remnick's article:
  • Internal quiet and calm - giving one space to listen to others and to offer them a safe, generative space in which they can join the conversation. In other words: interior quiet, listening, and making safe space for others.
  • High cognitive capacity, transcending yet including formal operational thinking (Piaget - rationality, thinking about thinking, seeing alternatives, taking perspectives, logical analysis). The transformational leader must have this, then move to vision logic (Wilber - sees patterns, senses what is trying to emerge, sees wholes and parts simultaneously, welcomes complexity, never tries to solve a paradox - simply embraces the tension and opens to see what is resonant).
  • Strong moral compass - the unchanging North Star. Journeys, projects, huge initiatives - all are organized around the idea and the reality of a clear North Star acting as a strange attractor, helping the ship, or fleet of ships, correct course in turbulent seas, as they endeavor to direct their progress always and only towards the Star (the vision, the mission). There is a kind of mysterious certainty that any endeavor, however complicated, will come out right in the end, if you keep your eye on the Star, and constantly adjust course (adjust strategies and means used to move towards your end objective). 
  • It's not about you as leader; it's the group, the family, the community, the nation. Not you. The leader lets go of self-focus; embraces the group he is leading/serving; becomes a true Servant Leader; and continually grows in his/her capacity for compassion and care.
  • Other qualities/capacities: resilience, mindfulness, trust, and fearlessness
  • And one more: slowness to anger. My grandfather used to say, "When in doubt, take it as a compliment!" If you can identify the "incoming missiles" and label them "friendlies", they will pass right through you. No ego contraction; no arrows sticking in your back. They flow through you. This gives you the center of quiet that allows anger to move through you, instead of storing it up for a coming explosion.
How was Obama able to get healthcare reform passed, when so many others had failed? What has Obama done (within the ACA bill) that has helped cause healthcare costs to grow more slowly? How has Obama been able to "end the Budget wars"? In a polarized and oppositional Congress, how has Obama been able to get a solid, bipartisan immigration bill through the Senate? How has he been able to end our Perpetual War? How has he brought us this far in our negotiations with Iran? What more is needed to give us a real deal?

Tomorrow I will look at these qualities of a transformational leader and show how I think they have allowed Obama to effect the transformative changes that I outlined yesterday.

Until then.

1 comment:

  1. 'Until then', thank you, Jim. Very nice to have you back after your holiday hiatus. - VC