On occasion, leadership isn’t a choice. Whether it comes to you de facto, is thrust upon you, or both in the case of Michelle Obama, how you handle the position of responsibility you’re granted is just as important as how you execute your leadership, and often, the key determinant of your success.
Her husband’s ascension to party darling, democratic candidate and ultimately President of the United States saw Michelle thrust into the limelight and being handed the position of First Lady (FLOTUS) within a matter of years. No matter your training (educated at Princeton and Harvard Law) and experience (stellar careers in law, academia and health care followed), taking on an unofficial role – representing your husband’s presidency and the White House no less – and owning it is no mean feat.
Yet, that’s exactly what she did. With a grace, humility and approachability that’s seen admiration beyond political party lines, the first African American woman to take on the position of FLOTUS has redefined the possibility of the position, and provided the world with a new role model and leadership style, and for people of colour and women particularly.
In examining what sets Obama apart, it’s her handling of the dichotomy of her position that’s the source of her inspiration.
The dual burden of balancing a career and family life – a pressure known to many ambitious parents – and confronting head on the prejudices inherent in being black and reaching the top of your profession are challenge enough. Add into it being the first representatives of your race for the top job in the most powerful country in the world, all whilst sacrificing your own career for the sake of your husband’s high-profile position…
It’s impossible to comprehend, but what is possible is examining how Michelle Obama has delivered her leadership, and learn from her glorious example of how to offer real leadership in the most challenging of circumstances.
Evident in her most famous speeches, Michelle’s natural gifts come in her strong voice, powerful speaking style and ability to weave her personal story into her passionate pledges to make America a better place for everyone.
Maintaining your dignity, grace and humility is far more challenging when you’re labelled “an ape in heels” or constantly reduced to the clothes you wear – Michelle frequently made best dressed lists during her husband’s two terms – but rather than looking outwards for validation or vehemently challenging the discourse, Michelle choose to call on her inner strength.
Being true to yourself, in life and in leadership, is never easy. Yet on the world’s biggest stage, choosing respect for self and others, and making your own life relatable in your efforts to motivate and inspire others, is a major hallmark of real leadership. Michelle Obama blows us away.
Nowhere did Michelle demonstrate being true to herself than in her dedication to family life, and ensuring their two girls had as normal a childhood as possible under the circumstances. In the run up to the election, she committed to no more than one night away per week, and during the course of the presidency, limited her schedule to allow for regular attendance at school events, as well as moving her own mother into the White House to provide consistent care for Malia and Sasha.
This commitment to a close-knit, caring and present culture was clearly evident in her own and Barack’s leadership style, with the message of a better and more compassionate America at the heart of his presidency. Their own relationship took centre stage too. Open and honest about the strains campaigning placed on their relationship, the couple have also been clear how their time in the White House brought them closer together as a family.
Whether Mom-dancing on the White House lawn, treating the household staff as extended family or championing family causes in her role as FLOTUS, family culture influenced every aspect of Michelle’s work and way of being, and with two well-rounded children, a strong family and reputation strong enough to inspire calls for her own shot at the presidency in 2020, she’s a mother, woman and leader in which people place their trust.
The Bigger Picture
Bringing her authentic self and experiences as a parent to the causes she championed during Barack’s eight-year term, Michelle campaigned for girl’s education, better health and military families. All core to her values, all playing to her strengths and experience but most importantly, framing her purpose as a leader.
As an advocate for working parents and young women in particular in taking their education seriously, Michelle frequently used her own humble beginnings in the South Side of Chicago, and used it to paint a picture of unexpected achievement paid off through hard work, a commitment to education and self-belief.
That and her mission to tackle childhood obesity – educating kids about food, nutrition and exercise – through her Let’s Move campaign to enable healthy futures saw her updating school nutrition standards through lobbying, planting the White House garden and establish nationwide nutrition and exercise programmes. All that and engaging in some highly questionable dancing on the Ellen Show in the name of investing in better youth futures.
Committed, personable, compassionate and genuine are some of our favourite real leadership qualities of Michelle Obama. How about yours?