Humility Update: President Obama on the World Stage

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Humility is strength.

More than a year ago I began a series on this blog about humility as a leadership attribute.  I noted that

A dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting.

Humility also helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that more likely thrive; to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders.

Yesterday at the close of the G-20 Summit in London, President Obama put his leadership in full focus as he demonstrated both confidence and humility on the world stage.  It worked.

He gained the confidence of world leaders, including those who had previously been America’s adversaries or who had predicted that the Summit would fail.  He even got a rousing ovation from an otherwise skeptical world press corps.

In a press conference closing the Summit, President Obama demonstrated a tone that was a stark contrast to that of his predecessor, and that rallied other world leaders to seek to cooperate with the United States rather than to resist us.

President Obama set the tone before a single question was asked:

Ultimately, the challenges of the 21st century can’t be met without collective action.  Agreement will almost never be easy, and results won’t always come quickly.  But I am committed to respecting different points of view, and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms.  That’s how we made progress in the last few days.  And that’s how we will advance and uphold our ideals in the months and years to come.

Leading with Empathy: Meeting People Where They Are

One of the fundamental principles of leadership and of influence is that when stakeholders are hurting — when they’re angry, scared, wary, skeptical, or alienated — the only way to lead them is to meet them where they are and bring them with you.

Leaders can lead the wary only if they meet them where they are physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and only when the leaders demonstrate genuine empathy.  But this requires caring about where they are in the first place.  And with the stakes so high, the need to lead with empathy is even more pronounced.

President Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

President Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

President Obama committed himself to understanding the perspectives of others.  In response to the first questions asked, he noted:

You know, when I came here, it was with the intention of listening and learning, but also providing American leadership…

I can tell you that what I’ve tried to do since I started running for President and since I was sworn in as President, is to communicate the notion that America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage, and that we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that, but that we exercise our leadership best when we are listening; when we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries; when we lead by example; when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer, but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer.

Meeting people where they are requires acknowledging their legitimate grievances.  (Even acknowledging their misplaced grievances.)

Acknowledging Grievances Helps You Move On

In my first humility post last year I noted that

Humility recognizes that there’s a big difference between responsibility and blame; that taking responsibility regardless of where the blame may lay down the organization is the first step in getting people to focus on a solution rather than simply point fingers.

President Obama demonstrated this principle in his press conference.  He was asked a question noting how many blame America for the world’s financial turmoil:

Q: …there is a lot of sentiment in G20 countries that the United States was a major cause of the global economic meltdown.  To what degree did that topic come up in your discussions?  Did it make it difficult for some countries to accept advice from the United States when they blame the United States and its economic system for causing this in the first place?  And how do you respond to people who do blame America?

Rather than become defensive, or evasive, or prevaricating, President Obama took the issue head on:

Well, you know, I don’t think that — I think my colleagues in the G20 were extraordinarily gracious about my participation.  I think that they continue to express the desire to work with America, admiration about many things American.  There were occasional comments, usually wedged into some other topic, that indicated from their perspective that this started in America, or this started on Wall Street, or this started with particular banks or companies.

Perhaps what helped was my willingness to acknowledge that  — and it’s hard to deny — that some of this contagion did start on Wall Street.  And as I’ve said back home, as I’ve said in public and as I would say in private, we had a number of firms that took wild and unjustified risks, we had regulators that were asleep at the switch, and it has taken an enormous toll on the U.S. economy and has spread to the world economy.

Understanding Others Leads to Effective Diplomacy

Even before the press conference President Obama showed an ability to do on-the-spot diplomacy by understanding the perspective of other leaders.  In a negotiating session involving only the 20 heads of government, President Obama mediated a dispute between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Leaders of G20 Countries Meet in Britain's Cabinet Room

Leaders of G20 Countries Meet in Britain

The New York Times reports:

For a tense hour on Thursday, Mr. Sarkozy and President Hu Jintao of China were going back and forth about tax havens. In a large conference room at the Excel Center, surrounded by 18 other world leaders, the two men sniped at each other, according to officials in the room.

Mr. Sarkozy wanted the big communiqué produced by the Group of 20 to endorse naming and shaming global tax havens, maybe even including Hong Kong and Macao, which are under China’s sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hu was having none of it. He appeared angry that Mr. Sarkozy was effectively accusing China of lax regulation, and that the French leader was asking China to endorse sanctions issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of wealthy nations that Beijing has yet to join.

According to accounts provided by White House officials and corroborated by European and other officials also in the room, Mr. Obama escorted both men, one at a time, to a corner of the room, to judge the dispute. How about replacing the word “recognize,” Mr. Obama suggested, with the word “note?”

The result: “The era of banking secrecy is over,” the final communiqué said. “We note that the O.E.C.D. has today published a list of countries assessed by the Global Forum against the international standard for exchange of tax information.” Hong Kong and Macao did not appear on the list.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao

It was not a Middle East peace accord. But Mr. Obama had his first moment as a statesman.

The Times quoted President Sarkozy as saying that President Obama’s mediation was “very helpful.”  President Sarkozy had previously threatened to walk out of the Summit if it didn’t seem productive.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Lessons for Leaders

Humility is often interpreted as weakness.  But as we’ve learned from recent Wall Street and political scandals, absence of humility ultimately leads to humiliation.  As Good-to-Great Author Jim Collins has written in the Harvard Business Review, the most effective leaders have a combination of humility and fierce resolve.  He notes that the most effective leaders are a study in duality:

modest and willful, shy and fearless. To grasp this concept, consider Abraham Lincoln, who never let his ego get in the way of his ambition to create an enduring great nation… Those who thought Lincoln’s understated manner signaled weakness in the man found themselves terribly mistaken.

President Obama, who has invoked the mantle of Lincoln both symbolically and politically, has demonstrated this duality.  His presidency, the nation, and the state of the world are just a little better today because he was able to use both his humility and his fierce resolve on the world stage this week.

More on humility in future posts.  Your comments welcome…


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