Lessons for students from Obama’s presidency

Students can learn valuable lessons about strength of character and work ethic from the presidency of Barack Obama

November 1 2016
Barack Obama

As we approach the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, it will be high time for experts to begin evaluating the significance of his legacy. Many will discuss the hallmarks of his administration such as healthcare reform, the elimination of Osama bin Laden, and diplomacy with Cuba, weighing these achievements against the deficits and lost opportunities that critics associate with Obama’s handling of foreign policy and the economy. But I suspect not as much will be said about the gems we’ve gleaned from observing Obama’s character.

By now, we’re used to the swagger, the cool – the distinctive gait, mid-range jump-shot and effortless imitation of Al Green. We’re used to the brilliance, the confidence and the charisma exemplified every time he inspires Americans to believe in the promise of a better tomorrow. We’re used to the frequency of “uhs” articulated in every sentence, the go-to phrases “let me be clear” and “don’t get it twisted”. We’re used to the model father and husband who coached Sasha’s basketball team, sang happy birthday to Malia on the 4th of July, and proudly claimed to be his wife’s biggest fan, tweeting her praises with love after her incredible speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.


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But behind the oratorical gifts, raw wit and political savvy are the bare bones of the man many Americans have come to admire over the past eight years. No matter the circumstance, Obama prizes preparation, improvement and empathy.

Every day at 8pm a large binder full of briefings is delivered to his office. And every night, he not only reads through every piece of paper that he gets, but he comes to every meeting with questions, notes and decisions. He averages less than five hours of sleep a night. On his longest nights, Obama has spent hours into the early morning revising and perfecting speeches drafted by his speechwriters. Obama also sets aside time each day to read 10 letters from American citizens (collected by his staff) and skim The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post

For Obama, meetings on world affairs are not the only thing worth preparing for. Whether it is basketball or pool, bowling or Scrabble, he wants to win, and after any loss, he’s doubly committed to working as hard as he can, within his schedule, to improve and ensure that victory is his next time around. On the campaign trail in 2008, he bowled a horrendous 37. Over the next year, he practised regularly in the White House alley. In a bowling competition the following year, he earned the highest score. 

Rarely does someone so competitive and fixated with prowess manifest equal if not greater concern for empathy. After arriving in Newtown after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Obama spent hours talking individually to more than 100 family members, hugging each parent and asking them to tell him about their son or daughter. None of this was mentioned by him publicly, although it was surely crucial to the comfort and healing needed at that moment.

These are just a few of many examples that underscore the value Obama consistently places on rigorous preparation, steady improvement and practising empathy as a leader. His presidency has shown rising leaders of my generation that beyond enhancing the quality of our ideas and nurturing our moral visions, effective leadership must involve cultivating and sustaining a strong work ethic and reaching out to others in an empathic effort to better understand their experiences.

After graduation, many of us will endeavour to make the world a better place by engaging with the issues we care about. I believe President Obama can serve as a role model as we orient ourselves toward achieving our goals. Not for policy, or ideology, but for studying and developing behavioural standards and traits of character conducive to our growth as rising leaders. 

Zachary R. Wood is a junior majoring in political science and philosophy at Williams College.

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