Leadership the Barack Obama way

The new US President has proved that business leaders may need to change their style, according to Gallup.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Research company Gallup asked 10,000 people to identify what they look for in a leader, and it basically boiled down to four things: hope, trust, compassion, and stability. This would certainly help to explain Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to power, since the newly-inaugurated President would presumably score pretty highly on all four counts. But there’s also a lesson for business leaders too: standard attributes (the ability to think strategically and act decisively, for instance) might not cut the mustard any more...

Gallup’s survey was intended to look at leadership from the point of view of their potential followers, so it asked 10,000 US adults to identify their top leadership attributes. Top of the list was stability: followers like leaders whose behaviour is consistent, predictable, and in line with the organisation’s expectations (whatever they may be). Then came compassion - whether the leader cared about them as a person. Next up was trust; not only whether they could be trusted on a personal level, but also whether followers trusted their instincts and integrity. And last (but by no means least) was hope: the ability to instil optimism and excitement about the future, whatever the circumstances (something Obama has in spades).

You might think these characteristics wouldn’t apply equally to business leaders. Well, Gallup was also keen to find out whether this only held for leaders that were close at hand. So it ran the survey again, restricting it to leaders of big organisations – and got more or less exactly the same response. Nor does this seem to be a US thing: it’s been replicating the survey around the world since, and getting almost identical results. We wondered whether Obama himself had influenced the outcome, by re-shaping people’s expectations of a leader – but apparently Gallup was getting the same answers even before he secured the Democratic nomination. So it looks like he’s fulfilling an existing paradigm, not changing it.

The research contains some interesting titbits for business leaders. Apparently, if people are confident about their company’s financial stability, they’re nine times more likely to be engaged employees. If they think their leader cares about them as a person, they’re also more productive, more likely to stay and will make higher profits for the company. And hope is perhaps the most powerful: if employees are optimistic about the future, seven out of ten will be highly engaged; if they’re not, just one in 100 will be. As Gallup’s Barry Conchie points out, a good leader can energise and inspire a room even if he’s delivering bad news.

One thing’s for sure: President Obama will be getting plenty of practice at that in the coming months...


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Leadership the Barack Obama way
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