Understanding Obama’s Appeal: Leadership and Communication Skills

The following was written and submitted as an Op-Ed contribution following president Obama’s June, 2009 Cairo speech.  The reference for the essential leadership and communication skills is The Vital Learning Corporation’s  Leadership Curriculum, Omaha, NE.  This program is used in business, community colleges, major universities and the government and I taught it as an adjunct professor.  Regardless of political affiliation, president Obama’s leadership and communication practices are impressive and can contribute to meaningful dialogue in achieving peace and conflict resolution.

President Obama enjoys widespread and diverse support both at home and abroad.  His appeal is understood through his effective use of specific leadership and communication skills.  An important outcome for leadership is obtaining commitment, not just amongst like-minded individuals but across diverse groups.  Commitment cannot be bought, at least not consistently. Nor does a position of authority guarantee commitment.  Rather, commitment forms when the universal upper level human need of self-esteem (people being made to feel valued, worthy) is met.

Position power (leadership that dictates from a position of power) tends to be compliance based, is poor at both motivating people and developing commitment, and typically contributes to an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Leadership based on personal power works at the level of understanding and meeting upper level human needs. This leadership style is motivational, forms both trust and commitment, and is universal in its application including family, community, business, government and international relations.

President Obama’s recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was a case study in the use of recognized leadership and communication skills known to build commitment.

Regarding leadership practices he positively impacted the Muslim audience at the level of self-esteem.  He relayed to the Islamic world that he understood their contributions and that they were important, thus making them feel valued.  Next, he confined his remarks to specific behaviors of concern (e.g., violence, discrimination) while rejecting inferences (generalizations, stereotypes) about people that are destructive to forming productive relationships.  And he encouraged participation, both in regard to cause and inclusionary practices.  Involvement makes individuals feel valued and that their contribution is important.

President Obama displayed command of four communication skills that build trust and commitment.  First he created a climate of open communication.  When individuals are made to feel that their opinions matter and that they can present their ideas and positions in a non-threatening environment, trust develops.  Trust is central to effective, productive and meaningful relationships.

Second he demonstrated that he had listened before communicating.  This skill is central to conflict resolution.   When one party can reiterate the other party’s position, the other party knows they are understood and the door is opened for dialogue.  In his speech he used the word ‘but’ over 30 times, first presenting one case and then, with that door opened, the other.

Third, he designed clear concise messages in the interest of the receiver.  His remarks and positions were supported by reference to Islamic teachings thus reinforcing his message of achieving peace and unity for all parties within a framework held close by the audience.

Lastly, he effectively managed his non-verbal behaviors.  Most of what we communicate is not the spoken word, but rather how the message is delivered.  His intonation, body language and other non-verbal behaviors conveyed a sense on honesty, urgency and commitment to the message he was delivering.

The opportunity to obtain peace, unity and conflict resolution, both at home and abroad, is best found in building relationships based on mutual respect, trust and commitment.  Such relationships will isolate and reject those with self-serving interests and those who violate the rights and needs of others. The tone for any great endeavor is set at the top.  President Obama’s use of effective leadership and communication skills has earned him diverse support and opened a door for dialogue.  May all parties take the opportunity to step through it.

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