ATD ICE 2018: Keynote Recap: Barack Obama

Keynote: Barack Obama

Everyone was insanely pumped to listen to the very articulate 44th President of the United States of America deliver his keynote address at ATD ICE 2018. I had never seen a lineup (that stretched around the convention centre) for a Learning & Development keynote. If I ever have the honour of keynoting an L&D conference or event…my lineup will be much smaller…understandably so haha.

My overall thoughts: I was not disappointed by Barack Obama’s inspiration, examples/analogies, and frankly, his ‘real-talk’. He was exceptionally down-to-earth, and emphasized the impact of going back to basics (e.g., your values) in order to succeed.

Obama begins his session with someone yelling “we miss you!” and him saying “I miss you too!” 

He discusses how the only thing they really had growing up was education. He mentions how his grandfather was able to receive his education because someone invested in him when he returned from the war, with the GI bill. His mother worked overseas to help impoverished women, because of her education. He would never have been born had his father not received a scholarship to come to America to receive an education. Everything hinged on education.

As important as family is, it’s also important to have a society that says it’s important to invest in the society. You are not defined by the circumstances in which you were born, but how hard you’re willing to work.

Obama talks getting ‘whooped’ in his run for Congress, and relates that to the concept of resilience. One of the things this whooping taught him, was to ensure you’re doing something because it’s the right thing to do, you have something in particular to offer, not just for the sake of doing something.

“Worry less about what you want to be, worry more about what you want to do.” (Obama, 2018)

He explains that society has become obsessed with wanting a title, or an office, and spend less time thinking about what they want to accomplish. He says that often times when this happens, in politics, people end up in Congress not knowing what they want to accomplish and how they want to impact the world. He says that you can end up rising above, by doing things that are important and meaningful to you, and things for which you are passionate about. Moving up in the world should be a byproduct of this passion.

“It’s great to be ambitious, but be ambitious in terms of what you want to accomplish, and not a title.” (Obama, 2018)

Obama explains that he is very proud that from the beginning of his campaign to the end of his presidency, they were able to provide young adults with opportunities that they may not have previously been exposed to. They consistently found that these individuals were able to feel as though they were part of something bigger.

“People respond when you expect a lot out of them.” (Obama, 2018)

On failing: He explains that it was okay for individuals to fail, so long as they learned from it. “Most things that are worth doing, are hard. If they were easy, everybody else would have done them already.”

He provided an analogy of coming home to his daughters after a long, difficult day at the White House. And he would say something to the effect of “adults don’t know how to do everything.” – a powerful sentence coming from a powerful individual. 

He emphasizes the importance of debriefing for failures AND for successes. This is how you improve. He discusses the importance of considering ‘everything that could go wrong’. This explanation is in relation to a very large-scale operation (the Bin Laden raid), but in everyday life and organizations, it’s still important to consider the implications of things that may go wrong. 

Not everyone on the team may be in agreement on any particular discussion. The only thing that lands on your desk, as the President, are things that don’t usually have a good solution, so you tend to work off of probabilities. For example, the auto industry bailout. Things were really bad. The economy was contracting faster than the Great Depression, but the White House was having to make decisions very quickly (e.g., a few weeks versus a few years) to ensure unemployment didn’t hit 25% or more. These decisions didn’t have great solutions, but the decisions made were necessary in order to assist the overall economy.

Takeaway: Not all decisions are popular, but they might be necessary. You need to consider your probabilities that are based on transparency and all sides being heard. You may not make the right decision, but you made the decision based on a very educated decision-making process. The decision wasn’t made in a silo.

When discussing the values that are most important to him, Obama explains that the older he gets, the more he comes to appreciate the old-fashioned homespun values that his grandparents and parents taught him: honesty, working hard, being kind, being useful, carrying your weight, being responsible, and these are the things he tries to transmit to his children and staff. He thinks that the values reflect how you interact with people on a day-to-day basis; the kinds of habits that you develop that transcend any particular issue or situation. As a consequence, these values become your foundation and baseline. Those values will get you through hard times and good times. They will allow you to sustain effort in a group, and influence your decision making. They’re the things that ultimately give meaning and purpose to what you do so that people are willing to go above and beyond surface elements, such as getting paid.

He explains that when he gets worried about things going on in society, he worries most about when the values of society are not being upheld. Our democracy cannot work, when we don’t insist on ‘facts’. You can’t make good decisions when you don’t at least agree on the facts. You can all have different opinions, but you can’t make good decisions if you don’t agree that a table is a table. It’s important for us to make sure that, regardless of our political proclivities, that the values underlying this great country don’t get eroded because situationally, in this particular circumstance, it’s ok to abandon our values in order to get what we want.” That kind of short-term thinking carries great consequences because democracy needs to be nurtured. Our kids do watch what we do, so if they see that adults aren’t honest, distort things, etc., over time, we’ll pay a price for that.

On becoming the President: “You had to learn very quickly to have thick-skin, and not to watch cable news.” (Obama, 2018)

What prepared him best were the principles he had cultivated over the course of 30-40 years. A habit such as discipline, for example. That’s not something you’ve learned the week you’re being sworn in. The thing about presidency that is hard is not the specifics, it’s the habits of performance. One thing he brought to the presidency that he found particularly useful was being able to take the long-view. Not getting too high when there were highs or too low when there were lows. These are not things you find in a manual.

When you’re most effective at working with others, is getting them to tap into their best selves. Where organizations don’t do such a great job, is often, helping individuals become better performers. 

On advice for getting people to change their thoughts and behaviours: He acknowledges that he cannot change until I recognize there is something about my current circumstance that I am not satisfied with. Recognize that change is hard, so being able to break up change into its parts (instead of the whole). You also need to acknowledge compromise – you may not get everything that you want out of change, but you can certainly get something. For example, the health care reform; what was interesting was individuals within your own party being upset that they hadn’t provided healthcare to everyone just yet. You need to acknowledge the compromise, and that change is a process. Instinctually, we understand change, but it’s very hard for us to remind ourselves and institutionalize change as a process. Part of why change is hard is that you’re always building off a legacy system, of “what is”. You can’t blame people for not wanting to rip out their existing situation to take a leap of faith entirely. You need to build a bridge for where people are, to where they want to be.

Last Question: Considering all that you know and all that you’ve experienced about the world challenges, you are genuinely optimistic about the future. Can you share why?

Obama explains that he is cautiously optimistic because society has some major challenges. Trend 1 – Technology is driving disruptive change that we are not prepared for; things will change quickly, and this will upend entire industries. Trend 2 – The world is shrinking, so we need to figure out how to get along with people who don’t look like us, and this makes people uncomfortable. These two trends will create stress in people, which may foster us versus them, instead of ‘we’. Trend 3 – Environmental issues, such as climate change, which is a fact, and this puts significant strain on communities around the world and creates issues of migration and increases in natural disasters. 

To paraphrase JFK: There are no problems, that man created that man cannot solve. 

He closes by saying that if we had to choose, we choose to be born here and now because there has never been a time in human history, where people were healthier, wealthier, more tolerant, educated. That doesn’t distract from the incredible tragedies that are happening everyday. We need to insist that we need to do better than we’re doing right now. The arc of human history is toward progress: things are getting better. 

He’s optimistic because the trend lines are pretty good, if you take the long-view, but he’s cautious because that progress is not inevitable. Progress is a result of each of us taking responsibility to make things a little bit better.

“If you’re kind and you’re useful, you’e going to live a pretty good life.” (Obama, 2018)


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