Mar 21, 2009

Is Obama "special?"

This week on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno Obama acted like "one of the boys." During an exchange with Jay Leno, he commented on his performance as a bowler and the conversation went like this:

LENO: Now, are they going to put a basketball -- I imagine the bowling alley has been just burned and closed down.

OBAMA: No, no. I have been practicing all -- (laughter.)

LENO: Really? Really?

OBAMA: I bowled a 129. (Laughter and applause.)

LENO: No, that's very good. Yes. That's very good, Mr. President.

OBAMA: It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something. (Laughter.)

LENO: No, that's very good.

OBAMA: No, listen, I'm making progress on the bowling, yes.

Ouch! For a man who is perceived as an excellent communicator, that is a major faux pas. Yet he made amends. On his way back to the White House, his team made him realize that what he had say was pretty stupid and insensitive. Obama agreed, and proceeded to call Timothy Shriver, the chairman of  the Special Olympics committee and apologized. That is more than most people would be willing to do, president or not.

Apologizing is a key part of building and maintaining healthy relationships. Yet, most of use refuse to do so because we feel that it diminishes us. Quite the contrary: it takes a healthy and confident person to apologize.

Shriver said it was a teachable moment, and indeed it was. But rather than dwell on the negative aspects of Obama's mistake, let's look at what he did right:
  • He apologized. Obama did the right thing. He made a mistake, he realized it and he made amends. There isn't much more to say on this.
  • He listened. Members of his team told him he made a mistake. Yet, he listened and accepted their judgement. Too many times, I see leaders who hire people to help them, but refuse to listen. They have made up their minds and are only looking for people to validate their opinions. It doesn't always work like that. In this instance, Obama listened to what others said, and acted accordingly.
  • He gives people power. In a business setting, how often are employees able to go to the boss and tell him or her: "Yo! You messed up, big time!" Evidently, Obama gave enough power to his employees, which enabled them to set him right. Let's not forget that we are dealing with one of the most powerful men in the world, here. What employees find annoying is when they are given a certain responsibility, but no authority to act, or even worse, they are yelled at and criticized when they do the work they were hired to do. It seems as though Obama hasn't fallen for that trap.
  • He acted immediately. Let's face it, Obama could have easily said "Whatever, if these people can't take a joke, that's their problem." But he didn't. When he realized that he had done something stupid, he acted immediately. He could just as easily have dismissed the whole thing as a "minor peccadillo" and went about his business. Instead, he chose to do the right thing.
If anything, Obama proved that he is just as human and stupid as the next guy. Which is a relief, when you consider his robotic demeanour when he reads the teleprompter.

Many cynics might say: "Yeah, well, he just did what his cronies told him to do." Maybe. But the fact remains that an insensitive and boorish individual would have dismissed his team's comments by saying something like: "C'mon, it's just a joke. They can take it." Obama realized that what he did was dumb and insensitive and acted accordingly.

Now, let's see what he does about the American economy.

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