The measure of leadership

As I watched President Barack Obama deliver the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, North Carolina last week, I was struck by two things: his ability to sense a pivotal moment in history and capitalise on it; and the way he was able to highlight the leadership qualities of the slain state senator and pastor, and the contribution he made to his community in a short lifetime.

The brutal massacre of nine souls in a church sanctuary had been reduced by the US media to a ‘moment of madness’ for a ‘troubled’ young man. In fact, his whiteness made him appear so nice and normal that the arresting officers couldn’t help but pick up a meal for him at Burger King on the way to jail; while the judge who set bail reminded the world that his family were victims too. It seems that he had been too preoccupied with mass murder to get lunch and his family was distraught at having given him a gun as a birthday present.

I wondered how the president would face up to this obvious bias in the media reporting and the justice system; how he would give the victims the dignity they deserved; and how he would address the questions about race that hung thick in the air, while the conservative media and right-wing attack dogs skulked in the shadows, waiting for him to make a mistake. In a speech that will go down in history as one of the greats, he ignored any possible detractors and spoke to his people – the victims’ families, the AME church, African-Americans and mourners all over America.

He created a brilliant contrast between Clementa Pinckney’s life of service and achievement, and that of the perpetrator’s narrow-minded emptiness and the media’s worn-out stereotypes of Black men. He laid bare the viciousness and hate that was met with love by the welcoming worshippers and later forgiven by the victims’ families. And, just in case you missed it, he repeated the statistics that spoke volumes about the fallen leader: “Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23. What a life Clementa Pinckney lived. What an example he set. What a model for his faith.”

This made me curious about Obama’s own timeline of success, so I looked it up: President of the Harvard Law Review at 29. Civil rights lawyer at 30. Part-time law lecturer (and later professor) at 31. State senator by 36. Bestselling author by 40. U.S. Senator by 44. Grammy award winner by 45. U.S. President by 47. It sounds simple enough but you can just imagine the ups and downs, the successes and the setbacks, in between the dots. Not to mention the early years of confusion, resulting from his mixed heritage, absent father and a growing awareness of racism around him.

What makes a confused young Barack able to overcome abandonment, prejudice and frustration, and become the leader of the free world? And how does a prodigious Clementa, surrounded by poverty and despair in the Deep South, achieve such a self-assured climb to leadership from just 13 years old? Is it something in the water, or in the genes? Was it consciously nurtured by parents and teachers? Was it by accident, fate or fortune? Or was it something else?

In analysing both stories, I found some commonalities. Barack’s mother would wake him up at 4am to study when he was falling behind in his grades – she refused to let him fail; Pinckney was from a long line of pastors, so expectation must have been equally high. Both had a strong sense of service to others: Barack was a community organiser on the tough South Side of Chicago and a defender of civil rights as a lawyer; Clementa remained a pastor, while seeking public office in a bid to serve a wider audience in his community. Obama has managed to perform well in the face of unprecedented opposition, smiling with his enemies as he finds ways around them. Rev. Pinckney smiled too, as he welcomed his killer into the midst of the small prayer group. 

Graciousness, it seems, is a prerequisite for great leadership. Fearlessness is too. 

I watched one last time as President Barack Obama wrapped up his speech. “Amazing grace.” He paused. “Amazing grace.” Longer pause. Then he launched into his now famous rendition of the song, stirring up emotions and galvanising the congregation with the solidarity of the moment. How many world leaders would trust their voices at such a juncture? Who would risk giving their critics such a rich vein of potential ridicule if it all went horribly wrong? But fortune favours the brave and, as a result, your grandchildren will see those moments in the years to come.

As I am writing this in Nigeria, I spared a thought for the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who rode to victory a few weeks ago on a promise of change. Change from corruption, abject poverty of the majority and impunity by a lost generation of politicians. I wonder how he will fare over the next four years. He appears to have both grace and fearlessness in abundance but time will tell whether he can find them in measure equal to the task. For Nigeria’s sake, I hope he succeeds.

I’m fairly sure he would have watched Obama’s speech. If he did, I hope he wrote this down; he may need it in the months ahead, especially when the going gets tough: 

“If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
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30 thoughts on “The measure of leadership

  1. Another interesting but concise write up from you Michael, your writing style looks as though you’ve been writing for years…. or have you?
    I eagerly await the next. Best wishes always!

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    1. Thanks John. I’ve been writing in one form or another since high school, when I was features editor for our magazine. Later, I learned to write ad copy during my advertising days and press releases when I transitioned to PR consultancy. However, this is quite different, as I’m expressing my own opinion rather than on behalf of a client or brand. That’s why your feedback and encouragement means so much! Much appreciated.

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  2. I read this article and agree with many of what you said but to be a great leader is totally different than being a leader. Circumstances create great leaders. The civil rights era created the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The cold war and East vs West ideology created Fidel Castro. I see Obama as a good leader and a pioneer, being the first Black US president. Yet I see limitations not necessarily within his control but limitation nonetheless. For example I was disappointing when he appoint all the Wall Street and Wall Street Apologist to devise strategies and policies that would limit the chances of a Financial crises to happen like what he came into office to face. Now we are seeing the effects of that strategy. The same people are in control, with the same system and more concentration of power. Like what we see on the international financial system we are seeing in US financial system. There are no meaningful risk cost if one made risky decision. They risk taker will be protected at all cost because they will be too big to fail or as in the case of the international finance, the powers that be will force the borrower to pay even if it means draconian economic policy on its people. where there is no cost for high decision, risk taking will be the order of the day.
    With all the corruption that was proven to happen, the guilty walk free. Goldman Sach blatant abuse of its fiduciary duty was allowed to walk without without any meaningful cost. The excuse then was too big to fail. The next time it will be way too big to fail. We are always ready and willing to see the corruption in Third World countries and blast it. I guess because of the level of abject poverty staring us in the face. Yet we gloss over corruption and inept response by political leaders in the Major economic powers. Living in the US probably is the reason for me to be a bit conscious of it.
    Sorry I am not really into the flowery part of leadership. I have seen too many blacks die and too many experience gross injustice over the years and see all these public and media coverage for a short while and then things go back to where they were before. The biased media, nothing new, great speeches by public leader nothing new, while people adapt and the situation remains with an unequal footing for justice, opportunity and tolerance.

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    1. Hi Taylor! Thanks for this response. I think that government policy, such as you’ve outlined here, is fraught with difficulties. It’s certainly more than I want to tackle in this blog, which is now read in 24 countries. I try to tackle themes which everyone can relate to, even if the context is Jamaica, Nigeria, the UK or US, and whether it’s personal or more general. Anyway, I’m sure you’re aware that when powerful interests are going to be affected by US domestic policy, Obama would need consensus and that’s not going to happen with this Congress. Thanks again for your support.

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  3. Yes Obama need consensus, but appointing the wrong people makes it null and void for any meaningful compromised change happening.

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  4. Writing is in your blood Michael, just like Leadership flows in Obama’s Veins. A leader is actually the people’s servant, but this assertion is still far off from our Nigeria leaders. The reverse seems to be the case. The president is the pope. So much boot- licking from followers. gushhh!

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  5. This was an interesting and topical in-depth piece. Well written, thoughtful and coherent as usual. I felt you articulated a very deep and literal analysis of three quite public, current and influential leaders. Once again a very well written piece that gives valuable information that any accomplished journalist could use as a significant contribution to their works on this very relevant and thought-provoking topic. In my opinion this article is one of your best so far! Bravo ! 😜

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  6. Michael, thanks for this awesome piece of enlightenment, conveyed in so concise and coherent a manner (or style) that makes it easily comprendible.

    I have not read any of your write-ups prior to this, but having talked with you on several occasions, I am not a bit surprised at your strength of articulate thought and expression.

    Yes, we all need to be fearless and graceful in order to surmount the many negative facets of our society(ies). And I share your hope for – I am actually optimistic about – a better Nigeria, with Buhari at the helm of affairs.

    Please, do keep the good work up. And have a splendid weekend.

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  7. Another splendid rendition Michael. I watched the speech and was completely overcome, the best he has delivered by far.

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  8. Hi Michael great writing , thanks for sharing, I think we can all learn from him on deal with leadership in our own lifes and our business life , We are God’s united team , and we all need to share the same air spece, the nine souls that was takeing so earlier was to try help us to see people Not colors

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  9. Dear Michael, As usual I read your writings with great expectations and so far haven’t been disappointed. I don’t expect ever to be. Thank you for putting into words thoughts that many of us have in our minds, but then we are not gifted with your eloquence. I hope you make every effort to get a copy into the hands of President Obama. I’m sure he would appreciate what you had to say. Love to you my son and continue to use your talent for good.

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    1. Thanks Clover, your response means so much to me. I’m starting to believe a lot more in my writing talent and this sort of validation is really encouraging. Thanks for your support. I’ve just posted another article on the US Supreme Court decision – I hope I’ve maintained the standard!

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  10. Graciousness! That word summed it up for me. I watched that speech and was moved to tears myself.
    Far past the Obama speech, I salute the forgiving disposition of the grieving families. It is a lot easier to reply hate with hate, but they chose the tougher route…embracing hate with a glaring show of love and oneness.

    Well done Michael!

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  11. Good piece. The panacea for leaders during crisis is for them to stick to their moral convictions and the vision they have for themselves, their organisations or their nations (people). They should not allow the crisis/tragedy to keep them from doing the right things…”

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  12. Michael, another great article on an event that raised questions about how far we have come from the days of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Definitely a defining moment in history. Everyone will be judged on their reactions to it……President Obama set the bar high!

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    1. Thanks Mary, I’m glad you liked it. You’re right – he will be a hard act to follow. I’m quite interested in what he will do next, as I doubt he will go off into the sunset like his immediate predecessor.

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