Engaging In Conversation with President Barack Obama

In another session organised by The Growth Faculty, I was honored once again to be invited along to engage “In Conversation with President Barack Obama” held on the 16 December at the Singapore EXPO. Two nights ago in the very same hall, I spent “An Evening with Michelle Obama”.

President Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, and his journey as a global leader and pioneer is one of resilience, perseverance and triumph — the result of exceptional determination and true tenacity. He shares remarks on his time in office and his leadership which ushered in a stronger economy, a more equal society, a nation more secure at home and more respected around the world.

Event VIPs’ reserved parking

It was an otherwise hot day, and the first sight that greeted as I entered the grounds of the event.

VIP dedicated queue

The orange carpet was already laid out for VIPs and top-level business leaders across the world.

Dedicated corner for a self-portrait

Not to forget a necessary self-portrait shot on such a memorable day.

There was still some time for networking and enjoying complimentary tea before the much-awaited event.

Today’s turn-out was bigger and better. A good estimate of over 4000 event participants were present to draw in the wisdom of a global leader.

Seats were allocated based on the three categories of Standard, Premium and VIP. 30 mins before the big moment, and the arena was filling up fast.

Few presidents have walked a more improbable path to the White House.  Born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, Obama was raised with help from his grandparents, whose generosity of spirit reflected their Midwestern roots.  The homespun values they instilled in him, paired with his innate sense of optimism, compelled Obama to devote his life to giving every child, regardless of his or her background, the same chance America gave him.

Barack Obama would spent an hour engaged in a panel conversation, moderated by Nicholas Fang, the Director of Security and Global Affairs at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Issues keeping you up at night

Barack started off the conversation with 3 issues that keeps him awake at night, mainly political polarisation, mass migration and rise of social media.

Political polarisation. Especially between advanced economies and developing countries. Barack came into this world at a time of relative tranquillity. China was opening up, Europe has unified, the concept of globalisation was becoming a reality, as well as a developing global supply chain. While diversive social issues such as tribalism, racism or even misogamy have been lessened, we do see a return to some of these political trends and societal tensions.

Mass migration from “natural issues”. Forest fires, rising water levels and tsunamis, changing monsoon seasons etc. are consequences of one global issue — climate change, yet it is consistently being downplayed. Climate change is real. The people who are more hurt by it are witnessing mass migration from their homelands.

Rise of social media. We continue to see an increasing leverage of technology to create falsehoods and generation of hate. There is no agreed upon set of facts, and as a result, leads to political break-down.

Light-heartedly, he shared that there were 101 other things he could worry the audience with, for example nuclear weapons. Another day, another time.

Barack shared that the administration during his time pivoted to Asia and commented that should the United States not have paid attention to Asia then, they would have missed the boat. With trade wars and tensions in the region, smaller nations are naturally worried about what they could do to remain relevant. Historically, there was a tendency for tensions, where uncontrolled, leads to conflicts. But, there was also a pressing need to re-look at internal politics and goals at the national level.

Barack quoted the example of Ho Chi Minh city, whereby he could feel the energy and spirit of its people when he visited. He believes his administration has done a good job focusing this aspect after the wars in 2000s, keeping sea lanes open and managing relations with china etc.

Missing your time in office?

Barack reminisced the honour and privilege of the work he had done which had impact on many people directly and indirectly. Each day that he could make small or modest changes to the lives of people is a day well spent. Some initiatives included broadband access to children, better pension for employees etc.

Barack is a workaholic and fast worker, and usually finishes work for the week in a weekend. He recalls how a publisher wanted to meet him “right away” to begin works for his memoir to which he offered his time on the following day. Yet, the publisher was only ready to meet 2 weeks from then. To him, “right away” is a situation whereby someone might die within 30 mins later, from his experience as ex Commander-in-Chief.

The security bubble, prompts and salutes are stuff that he didn’t miss. He misses the work and the extraordinary, disciplined team he had put together. Everything he accomplished is attributed to him setting up a good team.

To succeed, Barack believes that leaders have to put talents in appropriate positions to succeed. His own capable people would solve problems that they could manage before they even reach him. The only problems that land on his desk are those with no solutions or precedence.

One of the worst scenario during his early presidency in 2008 was the loss of 8 million jobs in just 6 months — averaging over 1 million each month. He did the best they could for the right reasons and maintained the highest level of integrity throughout. That is how he manages stress during presidency.

The Conversation with Barack Obama

Leadership renewal versus hanging on to power

One of the questions still constantly being asked of him, was whether he would have ran for a third term.

Barack believes in constant renewal of leadership. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t. He gave the example of senior-aged management in corporations who continues to hang on to power. Their ideas were usually old, outdated and insecure. Fresh energy and new approaches were constantly being squashed.

His advice to Leaders: Leaders, you are not there for life. Those who stay long enough, tend to mix up personal interests with national or corporation interests.

Extremism comes about because there is no avenue for alternate expressions. There is need to be cautious and a possible re-look at renewal of both political and civil trends.

Leisure and being himself

Barack’s grandfather was “naturally bad” at golf. As his grandson, he used to drive the cart to pick up balls, and at the same time hear cussing behind. Being President, golf to him is one of the few ways that Barack can be outside and be like a normal person.

He remembers whenever he goes out, streets were closed, traffic stopped and helicopters hovered around. He could probably feel the “hate” whenever it happens.

Bringing the focus back to your team

Great leaders empower others. Build a team, bring in good and competitive people. Identify talents and help them realise those talents by putting them in positions that they can succeed. Barack confides the success of his management style and affirms the multitude of talents in his team.

None of us are good in everything. Nobody can handle everything by themselves. Not everyone can be shooters in a team; some play defence, mid-field or support. Some leaders feel threatened by people who are smarter than themselves — they want Yes-men.

The truth is talents are talents. Talents should come from different fields and backgrounds to cover blind spots. These are where you can tap on world class minds during unprecedented situations.

Being one of the most respectable Leaders in the world

Barack stressed that it was important not to romanticise past leaderships. Even in Asia, there were past leaders who are less than exemplary. A good leader has to be comfortable in understanding complexities.

Social equality is a concept that we all have to embrace. Societal changes are not always led by just some group of people at the top. Even the normal class citizens could led the march should the cause be strong enough. Gandhi led the Salt March in India back in 1930. That is how changes occur.

Winning the Nobel Peace price just 9 months into Presidency

Barack was honoured but felt that it was too early for him to have won. To put it simply, it was a symbol of hope rather than manifestation of peace when he was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.

Final view of the emptying event hall

Ending statements

Barack shared that he was a cautious optimist. Life is a lifelong race. You have to pass the baton to continue. The world we know today is wealthier, more educated and greater understanding of inter-culture. If you asked him, there was never a better time to be born than now. People around the world have to get their acts together. It is hard to perfect things but to take the steps to make it better is good.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Once again, we enjoyed a very insightful session that will be internalised within us for time to come.

We had a Business Leaders meal to digest what we heard earlier and ended with a panel discussion.

Nuseir Yassin as Nas Daily

As for me, what’s better than spending one minute of time together with Nas Daily? That’s 1 Minute | See You Tomorrow.

Hope the Obamas have and continue to inspire you.

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