In Conversation with Barack Obama

By Tan Xin Hao, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

The influence and accountabilities of the President of the United States of America are distinctive and unparalleled. America stands on the shoulders of brilliant leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Bill Clinton. These influential figures achieved massive accomplishments and progress for the US economy during their tenure. Amongst them stands one of the greatest leaders of the 21st century—Barack Obama.

The 44th President of the United States of America was in Singapore on 19 March 2018 for an exclusive event hosted by the Bank of Singapore. The event, named “A Moderated Conversation with Barack Obama”, saw Mr Obama offering 1,000 top clients and guests an intimate glimpse into the world’s most powerful office. This event marked the ex-POTUS’ first trip to Singapore since leaving the White House in January 2017. As I was interning with the Marketing team, to my delight, I was given the opportunity to contribute and the privilege of attending the event.


Bank of Singapore's event with Barack Obama


We’ve typically heard Mr Obama delivering pre-written presidential speeches and rehearsed presentations to get precise ideas across. However, in this exclusive moderated conversation, Mr Obama spoke authentically—off-the-cuff and right from the heart. Within that short hour, amidst discussion over a range of global issues including Syria’s humanitarian crisis, climate change, and the rise of China, I was further immersed in his underlying principles, ideals, and philosophies which have propelled him throughout the eight incredible years at the helm of the oval office.

In short, here are four crucial takeaways gleaned from this invaluable opportunity:


1. Serving with A Purpose

Mr Obama’s speech accentuates his abilities and ambitions as a servant-leader. He constantly underlines the importance of building credibility in leadership through serving with a purpose. This is clearly shown by him placing the country’s guiding principles above his own interests.

In his own words: “Always define your purpose. Do not be somewhere for the power or status. Be there to make a difference and serve with authenticity. There is no need to always strive to be perfect or the best. Instead, focus on the progression and continuity.”

While others have pursued power or prestige, Mr Obama has constantly demonstrated compassion to citizens from all walks of life, hunger in improving society, and an inclination to empower others. Through the raising of minimum wage, ensuring affordable education, and creating new jobs for Americans, Mr Obama exuded himself as the “People’s President”, as many had coined him. Indeed, he has been a true servant-leader who has remained humble and diligent.


2. Defining Yourself

As the son of a Caucasian mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father, Mr Obama has had his fair share of detractors. He could have succumbed to the perceptions others had of his capacity to attain success in his personal or his professional life. Instead, he has refused to allow his critics to dominate or overwhelm him. Instead, he defined himself.

It is not easy being the President of the United States. “You get only about a few hours of sleep per day. That’s of course if you are doing the job,” joked Mr Obama. You can never please every citizen due to omnipresent constraints within society. Mr Obama has also admitted to making poor choices in his own life. Therefore, “Learn to embrace your critics and accept them, but do not let them affect you”.

The bottom line is that you may not be responsible for the circumstances you find yourself in, but you are responsible for how you react to them. Do your best to move forward and learn from your struggles, because great things are waiting for you on the other side. Act immediately, be decisive and be willing to make hard decisions; do not merely hope.


3. Grooming Leaders of Tomorrow

Mr Obama has identified the younger generation as the greatest investment one can make for a better future. He remains highly optimistic about trusting them in continuing the legacy to challenge daunting issues such as economic inequality, violence and climate change.

One of the pathways for them to take leadership is good parenting. Good parenting is a powerful tool for social transformation and leaving a legacy. Therefore, it is paramount to instill good values early. These are the fundamentals of being a parent.

Building on this, one of Mr Obama’s key priorities upon retirement, apart from spending more time with his family, is to transform even more lives and develop the next generation of leaders, through the Obama Foundation.


4. Defining Your Core Principles 

There are times when Mr Obama has faced setbacks, frustration or even failure. However, what are his guiding principles that have navigated him through tough times?

One of Mr Obama’s core principles is to always treat everyone with equality and never engage in politics to divide people or make them less than others due to their different religious faiths, looks, sexual orientation or skin colour. This is something which he will never violate.

Your core principles will give you a very clear view of what you stand for, to know who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. These traits will then shape a very successful career because others will sense integrity in your leadership and know that you believe in something, even if they do not agree with you. So, while climbing the corporate ladder, always ask yourself “Why?”.


The Mark of Obama

As the audience rose to a standing ovation while Mr Obama was escorted to the exit, I paused in deep reflection to take in the insights I had heard.

Mr Obama’s astuteness, incredibly positive demeanour, decency, integrity, grace under pressure, equanimity and good temperament are traits that he lives by each day, and traits which we all could—nay, should—strive to adopt.

We have witnessed the ascent of countless outstanding leaders in the 21st century with Aung San Suu Kyi, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Pope Francis, and Richard Branson. However, Mr Obama’s unique career is clear proof of the power we have when we believe in our dreams. Becoming the first African-American president must surely have seemed an impossible dream some time ago, but his audacity to hope has never stopped his belief that this is possible and he fought for it with all his might, heart and soul.

No president is perfect. Every president makes mistakes, some more than others.  However, despite the challenges, his time at the oval office is marked by many accomplishments, and is one who has truly left an indelible legacy.

An exemplary leader. A devoted husband. A responsible father.

Mr Barack Obama, thank you for sharing your wisdom and inspiration with the world.


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