What Leaders Can Learn from Obama’s Biggest Mistake

In an interview last week, President Obama revealed the biggest mistake of his Presidency has been “putting policy over storytelling.”  He offers lessons we learn and apply as leaders of people, whether we work from the Oval or the corner office.  Obama’s misstep reveals 3 game-changing considerations

1. Don’t Think Your Job Is About Administration

The President thought his job was about “getting the policy right” when, instead, it was only part of his task.  The other part of the equation, and perhaps a more important one, was to ”sell” people regarding the need for the policy. Failing to connect with your people is a common mistake.  “Selling” requires inspiring people with a compelling story of how the new policy will better their lives.  People don’t want to know the statistical impact of a new immigration policy; they want to know how it connects to the American dream and their own lives.

2. Keep Your Eye on the Story

During his campaign, Obama gave a hope-filled story of change that resonated and rallied people.  But once elected he failed to continue the story and focused his efforts only on implementation. How often have you – or the leaders around you — been focused only on tactical execution? Presenting only facts, figures and performance metrics. Forgetting to link the metrics to a story – your strategy and vision. Assuming people can connect the dots between your work and its impact on original promises. You can be so busy pleading your case that you forget, without a story, information and data has little meaning.  It lacks an emotional connection.

3. Include a Roadmap

Have you ever found yourself working on something and wondering, “Why am I doing this? What’s the point?” I have. In fact, I’m guilty of directing an initiative or two and forgetting my cardinal rule:  if you want me to travel down the road with you, you need to tell me where we’re headed.  The other day a friend was relaying a recipe she knew I’d love. But, after a few moments of step-by-step instructions (“cut the apple and then combine it with…”) I had to interrupt to ask, “can you first tell me what we’re making?”  I needed to know how the steps connected to the larger picture, so they made sense. Think about it: it’s the picture of digging your fork into a just-out-of-the-oven warm apple pie that makes you want to go through all the work in the first place. The apple pie concept applies when you want to effectively influence anyone.

The thing that separated the great leaders I’ve worked for from just the good, was their ability to provide a narrative that told me where we were going as an organization. The story they provided instilled in me a basic desire to play out my part and travel the journey.  If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there.

4. Give People an Active Role in the Narrative

Your stakeholders are the ones who make things happen. You need to do more than just rattle off a story:   it needs to be a compelling one about where you’re leading them and why. Then, as Obama put it inspire them to take a role in creating a storybook ending. When you give people a role in the change that’s impacting them, it creates purpose and meaning for them. I want to be inspired and know that what I do every day matters. Don’t you? Your internal teams represent more than passive passengers taking up seats on the bus to your destination. They want to know what’s in it for them, too.

Obama was the master of storytelling during his election campaign – giving Americans a position as co-drivers of his dreams for change. It will be fascinating to see how he attempts to make the final years in his Administration a storybook comeback.


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