A Confession About Late 2008

Nearly three years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 presidential election and Barack Obama’s entry into the presidency, I decided to offer a leadership seminar that included Obama. I put together a session looking at the leadership experiences of Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Booker T. Washington. Given Obama’s emergence as the self-proclaimed first black president, I thought the response to my topic would be good.

(Now, I’ll bet I can guess where you think I’m going…do you think I’ll say the response wasn’t good? If that’s what you’re expecting, prepare to be surprised.)

The response was mixed. But that’s not what I want to confess.

This is what I want to confess.

When I was researching the material for the session, deciding what to write and say and all the rest, I delved fairly deeply into the leadership experiences of each man. And when I was done, when I had completed the presentation and was ready to deliver it to a client, I had a stark realization.

Compared to King and Washington, Obama’s leadership experience was nil, nada. I didn’t have much to say about him to balance out the impressive, almost awe-inspiring list of achievements, struggles, experiences, and imprint evident in King and Washington’s lives.

Frankly, my first reaction was one of embarrassment. My second reaction was one of diligence–I combed and re-combed through my material to make sure there wasn’t something subtle but significant that I had overlooked. 

Nope, there wasn’t. 

As it turned out, my client didn’t seem to notice. The group of 25 or so people were excited about Obama, assuming that whatever couldn’t be said or written would soon be completed by the new president’s upcoming actions. The session went fine and everyone went home rather pleased, myself included.

My purpose in bringing this up now isn’t to bash Obama. Candidly, I didn’t vote for him or for his opponent. I was, however, the keynote speaker for a group of Obama supporters and was ready to give all credit where all credit was–or perhaps would be–due. No, I don’t share this story to score political points. Rather, I offer this confessional story to emphasize the value of a life well-lived and a life well-worked, the stuff of leadership. King and Washington prove this. Perhaps some day Obama will too. It may be that such a day will unfold for him in another place, another time. Thankfully for all of us as people, our Rivers run long past what we assume is our key moment.