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Former President Barack Obama on Why a Leader is Only as Good as His Employees

Employee culture in the White House

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Kindra Cooper

employee culture

Thought leaders like to say that hiring the right people is the gospel for organizational success, but when that organization is the White House, it can make or break policy.

During his keynote at the X4 Experience Management Summit by Qualtrics in Salt Lake City, Utah, former commander-in-chief Barack Obama reflected on the highs and lows of his presidency, and why it was critical to “have the confidence to have people around you that were smarter than you, disagreed with you, or had perspectives that were different from yours.”

In fact, Obama said that what inspired him to run for president was the devastation of Hurricane Katrina - namely, how unprepared the government was to deal with a natural disaster of that scale.

“So when I came into office, I said, ‘Let’s make sure we have the best guy or gal to be the head of FEMA,” Obama said, referring to the government agency responsible for coordinating disaster response.

“It’s not the fanciest, most high-profile position in government, but it’s the person who, when there’s a tornado, a flood, a wildfire, a disaster, makes sure that we are mobilizing government resources to help people in moments of desperation and when local governments have been swamped.”

employee culture

Photos courtesy of Qualtrics

A leader is only as good as his employees

Hiring the sharpest minds and delegating accordingly empowers workers to make decisions on the leader’s behalf, so that the leader can focus on the high-level vision. "By definition if it was an easily solvable problem or even a modestly difficult but solvable problem it would not reach me because by definition somebody else would have solved it," Obama said.

Easily or moderately solvable problems are usually taken care of by aides, he noted, leaving the president to decide on “the ones that were horrible and didn’t have a good solution.”

There’s no doubt about that. Taking office in the midst of a global financial crisis requires some tough calls, particularly when the economy sheds 8.7 million jobs from 2008-2010 and the automobile industry collapses. After the disastrous launch of the portal through which Americans could sign up for Obamacare, the site crashed within two hours of launch, and parts of the web design like dropdown menus were incomplete.

“Part of what it taught me was that when you are managing any organization of that size, scope and scale is that even if you are focused on the right thing, if you haven’t dug deep enough into the weeds to get a sense of potential system failures that could occur and anticipate those early can have a disaster on your hands.”

Throughout the fray, Obama says he learned two crucial things: being comfortable with making decisions in scenarios where “there’s no such thing as a 100 percent solution,” and two, ensuring he had access to all the information, data and perspectives before taking action.

There’s no such thing as an instruction manual that tells you how to be a parent, a teacher or an astronaut beyond run-of-the-mill best practices, but a commander-in-chief encounters situations where there’s no precedent on a near-daily basis.

Obama joked that when he took office, no one in the administration had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s in which unemployment rate peaked at 25 percent, the only comparable event to the 2008 recession.

“I couldn’t find Harry Hopkins,” he quipped, referring to a close Roosevelt policy advisor who helped conceive the New Deal stimulus program that helped reboot the economy by ramping up government spending.

employee culture

Obama is interviewed by Qualtrics CEO, Ryan Smith

A leader’s role is to have the right people in the right place at the right time

Everyone knows that it’s lonely at the top, hence why a leader needs to be able to call upon the right talent. When Deepwater Horizon occured in 2010, “the largest environmental crisis to happen in our lifetimes,” no one knew what to do about the hole at the bottom of the ocean at a depth of 5000 feet, including the oil company itself. The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking 50,000 barrels of oil per day into the Caribbean Sea.

Luckily, Obama had appointed Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as Secretary of Energy.

“Chu comes to me and he’s got a napkin and he says, ‘You know, I think this thing might work.’” Obama recalls. “He’d drawn what looked like a little hat and there were numbers next to it.” They sent it over to BP, the oil company that owned and operated the exploded oil rig. The “little hat” turned into a containment device that slowed some of the spillage.

“My role as a leader in that organization was not to come up with that little hat, because I wouldn’t have thought of that - I would have thought, that doesn’t look complicated enough to stop this hole in the ground,” Obama said. “My job was to have Steven Chu there who has a Nobel Prize in physics - and that’s who should be in charge of the Department of Energy.”

It was one of several good-natured jabs at the current White House resident, who installed Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy. The former Texas governor has been accused of receiving campaign cash from energy and natural resource interests, indicating a potential conflict of interest.

Another one went: “I’m old-fashioned and I believe in these enlightened values like facts and reason,” prompting raucous applause from the audience.

Building an employee culture focused on the mission

One need not be a House of Cards fan to know that many people take jobs in politics for self-aggrandizing purposes. One of the things Obama emphasized during his campaign was that whether you were a volunteer, staff member, or a donor, you had to be there because you were dedicated to the larger mission - and not out of self-interest.  

“If you build a culture where it’s about solving the problem or getting the work done as opposed to who’s getting the credit or ‘How much money am I making’ or what have you, that builds a transparency that allows for good decision-making, because there’s a clarity about the goals, objectives and values at the heart of the organization.”

Having promoted these values on the campaign trail, once Obama and team entered the White House, they’d weeded out the “mercenaries” and self-promoters, he said.

Obama on the most important thing that’s happened to him in the past decade

People have nicknamed him “no-drama Obama” for his even temperament, but the former president admitted that over the last decade, the most significant thing to have happened to him was the “shedding of fear.”

“There is no doubt that by the time I was in my second term I was a better president than I was in my first term, and it did not have to do with analysis or policy,” Obama explained. “It had to do with what comes in anything - sports or teaching or you name it - you get enough breaths, enough repetition and familiarity with the nature of the problems that you have that you start being focused on the task and not how are you doing on the task and the self-consciousness that comes from that.”