3 Leadership Lessons from Michelle Obama

November 21, 2017


Michelle Obama spoke at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, Connecticut last week. My wife works for the organization that was a key sponsor for the event and I was lucky enough to be the “plus 1” for the evening. I found the Former First Lady to be completely captivating, quite hilarious and more ‘real’ than I expected, and I noticed a thread throughout many of her remarks that seemed, at least to me, to be interesting perspectives on leadership.

“Know who you are, and be true to that person”

When she was asked about the experience of being First Lady, she started by saying that the “person you see here is the one you’ll see backstage and the one you will see at home.” Using her own experience as an example she said, “The White House doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” And isn’t that true? Isn’t it in moments of stress or high visibility that we believe a person’s true colors shine through? The ability to be aware of and consistent to one’s self no matter the circumstance is enviable, but also the sign of a strong leader.

This does require some introspection – which can be tough. It also requires forgiveness – forgiveness of our own challenges and failings as well as a forgiveness of others that may be different than we are. She also talked about the importance of being “comfortable with your own voice” and recommended that we actually learn to like the person that we are. She reminded us that all our stories are valid simply because they are ours, but it’s important that we own those stories and understand the impact they may have on our daily lives as well as the lives of others.


The “practice art” of balance

Mrs. Obama talked about her perspective of finding ‘balance’ by saying, “Balance is a practice art – we aren’t socialized to know how to do this.” At first, I didn’t quite understand her comment. A ‘practice art’? What does that mean? After sitting with this for a few days, I think it’s starting to make more sense. There is no science to balance for most of us. Balance doesn’t look the same or work the same between individuals, but we seem to know we have it when we feel it – which is a little bit like art itself. She talked about her experience of growing up with a large extended family that was in her immediate geography. It sounded like there were always aunts, uncles and other trusted adults around to provide support to each other. She acknowledged that this is not as common today as it may have been before and that we may be the first generation of truly isolated adults.

So, what does this mean for us now, even as leaders? I think it means that we can’t do it alone. It means that we become vulnerable by sharing our need for support and open to the support when it arrives. It means that we reduce the amount of resentment we may feel about our situation or about those that aren’t able to support us the way we’d like, and find individuals that can provide that support.


At the end of the day, we have the power of intention and choice…

“Pick your issues”; “Change doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up.”

At one point in the evening, the moderator asked Mrs. Obama how she landed on those issues that would become areas of focus during her time as First Lady. Her response was so interesting. She indicated that she was aware that it was unlikely that she would receive universal support for any issue – even a focus on childhood nutrition – given the political climate in Washington. She said, “Sometimes it might be more important to be creative” than to wait for legislation to change.

I thought this was a powerful message for our time today. Many individuals may find themselves feeling frustrated by their current situation at home, at work or in the country. It’s tempting to point to others, their flaws and/or poor decisions as the reason that things are not working, or aren’t working as well as they could. She talked about the importance of keeping your focus on the areas that you can control, or at least influence. As leaders, this is key for all of us. Where we can influence those that lead us, we absolutely should try. But we should not assume that our inability to influence those at the top is the reason to accept ‘the way things are.’ If our leaders’ behavior is less than kind, we can still be kind. If it appears that poor decisions are being made, we can continue to make good decisions, or at least try to do so. At the end of the day, we have the power of intention and choice – and these are powerful tools indeed.

“Balance is a practice art – we aren’t socialized to know how to do this.” – Michelle Obama

Mrs. Obama’s message wasn’t designed as a leadership-speech per se. But her messages resonated with me and I hope they may with you as well. Here are the questions I will leave you with:

→  Do you feel that you know who you are? Do you know what’s important to you and those values that you hold dear?

→  Do you have a sense of balance in your life today? Do you know who to turn to when you need support?

→  Do you know how to assert your influence in your world today? Can you ‘pick your battles’ to allow focus where you can impact outcomes?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions – congratulations! You are likely a well-grounded and balanced leader.

If you would like to answer ‘yes’ to more of those questions, think of ways that you can begin addressing them one at a time. Along with accessing a mentor or friend, TLS can provide helpful support to you on your leadership journey.

The images of First Lady Michelle Obama are works of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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