An auspicious week for me. Firstly, I heard Barack Obama speak at the Oslo Business Forum and today it is a special birthday for me when I start a new decade. Although you might not think so, these two are connected as I listened with interest to the advice that he said that he would give himself through the decades if he were to go back there now. More about this later…first of some nuggets from his fireside talk which give us real insight into his values and beliefs about the world, business and leadership.
He started by sharing some of the things he is most concerned about in the world today. He is worried about the ‘Winner Takes All’ mind-set that feeds the political trends we are seeing. We are experiencing the backlash to the hubris on the part of the Western world as people feel left behind. Democracy is not inevitable. We must fight for this. The internet was supposed to deliver connectivity for good but often it delivers a much darker message.
When asked about the constants in the world he answered that humans are basically the same all over the world – it is our cultures and rituals that are different. If we hold onto this then it will help to solve most of our problems. We must treat others with kindness not start wars. This requires a social welfare state that is well run and re-invests any surplus. Without this, imbalance breeds in the system.
When asked about competence and what makes the difference, he had some interesting insights for business owners and those of us from older generations. He said that it is the natural impulse of the previous generation to be defensive. Yet the single most important thing is to identify and nurture the next generation.
Those who will succeed are those who get things done not those who take the credit but do little or nothing. This principal transcends age. If you are good at what you do, then people will give you more work. He said that organisations with a critical mass of women in leadership positions do better. As President he took the view that every point of view was relevant and to guard against natural biases. It is good to know your own strengths and weaknesses and to be predisposed to making others succeed. Often entrepreneurs expand fast and just do not recognise this. He said that as President he also recognised quickly that he could not so it all which made him very humble very quickly. He believes that humility is very important in modern leadership.
When asked about his greatest leadership lesson he said to take calculated risks and also to be prepared to fail. It is true that if you are not making mistakes you are probably missing opportunities and operating out of fear. The important thing is to have a feedback loop. On his first day in the Oval office, he asked Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence, for his advice. He said that with the number of his staff and the size of his budget you can guarantee that someone somewhere would be screwing something up!
This then brings us to the question of the advice to self. He said that, at 20, he would relax more and not be too intense about everything. At 30, he would have determined early how to balance career with family. People who are achievers become workaholics. The most successful people often need to make different choices about their relationships as these are what sustain you as you get older. If not, at 50 you may turn around and realise you have lost a big chunk of your life. And his advice to self at 40: start dying your hair earlier!