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Obama stresses importance of values

All about values: Barack Obama, the former US president, talks with Tony Bingham, CEO of the ATD, at a conference in San Diego

Barack Obama stressed the importance of values and shared many of the principles that served him during his political career at a human resources conference in San Diego.

Speaking to an audience of more than 11,000 delegates at the Association for Talent Development Conference, the former US president also told of how leaders can benefit from seeking input from those much lower down the chain of command.

The values Mr Obama espouses are honesty, hard work, respect, kindness and being useful, he told the audience.

During his question-and-answer session with Tony Bingham, ATD’s CEO, Mr Obama said: “I worry when our values are not upheld.”

He talked about his time at the White House, when there would be various leaders of departments and agencies present around a table. There would also be an outer ring of people who were aids, staffers and assistants, whom he referred to as those who “actually do the work”.

These background people would be passing notes to the leaders at the main table. These were the people who knew what was really going on, he said jokingly.

As president, he would sometimes ask these people for their opinions. By doing this he was sending a message to the inner ring that these people should be listened to and asked for their feedback. He tied this in with his point of being inclusive.

He said that there is much to be gained when we listen to those in the outer ring or those at lower levels in the chain of command. His other point here was the importance of treating all workers with respect, one of the values he advocates.

Organisations need to get the message across that “you’re important enough that we’re going to invest in you”, he said.

To emphasise the importance of values, he told a story about an Asian-American from Los Angeles who was in his 20s and worked on his presidential campaign in a conservative, rural community in Iowa.

Despite enduring an ethnic slur, the volunteer carried on and endeared himself to the community. He had a booth outside a grocery store and helped elderly shoppers by carrying their bags to their cars.

He also volunteered to coach a Little League team that was looking for a coach. He became so popular that “some of the moms would cook for him”.

Mr Obama said: “He could have been elected mayor [in that community].” He attributed this young man’s success to “a set of values that he carried into that situation, transmitted to him by his parents”.

When he talked about change, he told another story. This one was about the time he quit smoking. He didn’t feel the need to quit as he was playing basketball, in good shape and looked good. This led to a round of applause, particularly from the women present.

His response to the applause was “I wasn’t fishing for those, but … thank you, ladies.”

He knew that his smoking bothered his wife. He didn’t smoke in the house. His daughters could smell the smoke when he would return to the house and ask him about it. He had a choice at this stage. He didn’t want to lie to his daughters and he didn’t want to pass on his bad habit so he quit.

When he covered the importance of planning, he said it took six months to prepare for the Osama bin Laden attack. “We tested everything that could go wrong,” he said.

On planning and learning from failure, he gave an example of when he decided to run for the Illinois State Senate in 2000 in Chicago.

His Illinois staff said that he had a good chance of beating the incumbent Democrat. However, it turned out that only 11 per cent of the people knew who he was. That led him to say: “Always do the poll before you announce you’re going to run.” This is certainly sound advice and can be applied to many situations. He said that “it was okay to fail as long as you learnt from it”.

The following Obama quotes will stay with me for a long time:

“People respond when you expect a lot of them.”

“Treat others with respect, kindness and generosity.”

“Be ambitious for what you want to be, rather than the title.”

“Democracy is something that has to be nurtured.”

“Progress is not inevitable.”

“We can do it.”

More than 13,000 people attended the conference with 2,450 international attendees.

Paul Loftus is a Montreal-based industrial/organisational Psychologist, an intercultural consultant and a freelance journalist. He has been conducting both public and in-company management development seminars in Bermuda for over 20 years. He can be reached at (514) 282-9111; ploftus@colba.net; www.paulloftus.com