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Where Barack Obama sees hope

Former US president Barack Obama outlines the challenges facing societies around the globe and where he sees hope.

Leadership renewal – that was the overarching message of Barack Obama when he headlined two events in Singapore last month. At an education benefit organised by Novena Global Lifecare and The Sylvan Group, the former US president told a rapt audience of 500 that he and his wife Michelle are now focussed on the Obama Foundation and Obama Presidential Center.

Says Obama, 58: “Our basic view after we left office was that, given the enormous challenges that we face around the world, the biggest impediment to positive change is typically not that we don’t have good technical solutions to problems, it’s the resistance to adopting new ideas.”

According to him, the only way to solve the various issues he has been grappling with over the years – issues such as climate change, reducing conflict or educating children – is to promote a new generation of leadership around the world and in the US. “Our focus is on how we provide the resources, the training, the platform, the networking, the mentoring for young people, whether they are in NGOs, in government, or are entrepreneurs.”

Two days later, he gave a second talk at Singapore Expo, held by business events provider The Growth Faculty. He shared his views on global threats, leadership, decision-making and life after the White House with an equally rapt audience of 4,500. The Peak reports on the conversation.

(Related: Most memorable quotes by Michelle Obama)

 

Biggest Threats to Global Stability

Political Polarisation

“What we have seen in the past 10, 15 years is a combination of things. Probably this arose or became revealed after the financial crisis of 2008. Even as the standard of living was rising, beneath the surface, there was enormous disruption, and people in the US and Europe felt like they were losing ground as a consequence of globalisation and automation. Blue collar workers were losing jobs and status and felt that their kids would not do as well as they did. There were winners and losers, and the losers started feeling besieged. There were cultural disruptions, whether they were in the Middle East, Asia or the United States. People who had traditional cultures felt those traditions were being assaulted and as a consequence, there was this populist backlash, sometimes from the left, more often from the right and the fallback was to tribalism, racism, misogyny, ethnic or sectarian conflicts. So the biggest threat that I see over the past decade is a return to some of the political trends and societal tensions that helped lead to WWII or WWI.”

 

Climate change

“The rapidity with which we are seeing rising sea levels, melting polar caps, increases in not only the frequency but the force of droughts, forest fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, flooding, and the displacement that takes place. All of those things will end up being national security problems. If you think about a place like South Asia, the entire subcontinent, if the monsoon season shifts radically or temperatures continue to rise in those areas, you will be looking at hundreds of millions of people who aren’t able to feed themselves and that could lead to enormous challenges.”

 

Social media

“The third is an accelerant of these other trends. What we thought of as an enormous good, has been used to propagate falsehoods and narratives of hate around the world. When you start contesting what’s true and what’s false, when debates aren’t just about opinions – about how you and I disagree on the best way to educate children or organise the economy – but about disagreeing on whether this is a table, a chair or an elephant, there’s no agreed upon set of facts that we can agree to, then test our ideas and opinions against them. Rather, everybody has their own facts. We start seeing political breakdown as a consequence of that.”

 

Post White House

Don’t miss: Pomp and circumstance

“If you run for president, you have to have an ego, you’re a little crazy. But relative to most heads of state, I was less enamoured with always having to be in front of cameras and people standing up when I walked into a room. I remember when I was first elected, when I walked into a room, everyone would be like ‘Mr President!’ I was like: ‘Sit down! What are you doing? You’ve known me for 10 years!’”

 

Miss: The work

“I miss the intellectual challenge each and every day of trying to solve problems and make people’s lives better. I miss the team because everything I’ve accomplished was the result of me being able to assemble people of extraordinary talent, strength, discipline and creativity. There’s a kind of satisfaction you get from working with excellent people, in high-stress, difficult circumstances.”

 

Warped sense of time

“There were times that I felt as if everything was moving in slow motion. I remember my lawyer calling me and saying – ‘Look, the publishers [interested in my memoirs] are chomping at the bit. They want to meet with you right away.’ I said: ‘Okay, how about tomorrow?’ He said: ‘No, no, it’s going to take them two weeks to get organised.’ I said: ‘Dude, where I come from, right away means if you don’t solve something in half an hour, somebody is going to die. A meeting two weeks from now is not right away.’”

(Related: Meet Naeem Khan, Michelle Obama’s Fashion Designer)

 

Leadership

Renew, refresh

“I believe in the constant renewal of leadership. If you look around the world, some of the biggest problems arise out of old people – usually old men – not getting out of the way. They cling to power, they are insecure, they have outdated ideas and the energy and the fresh vision and new approaches are squashed. And usually the tragedies that happen in countries result from that impulse. It’s important for political leaders to remind themselves that you are there to do a job but you are not there for life. You’re not there to prop up your sense of self importance or your own power. That’s a hard thing for a lot of political leaders to absorb. And the longer they are there, the more they start equating their self interest with that of the nation. That’s a dangerous mistake.”

 

Women at the reins

“I wouldn’t mind if every country on earth is run by women for two years. Women, I just want you to know, you’re not perfect, but what I can say is that you’re better than us. [With women in charge, you] would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything. There would be less war, kids would be taken care of, [there would be] improvement in living standards and outcomes.”

 

Even more diversity

“If you want to be a great leader, you have to understand your job is actually to empower others. You have to be predisposed to other people’s power. One of the things I am very proud of is the team we have assembled because we have a multitude of different talents. None of us are good at everything. This is the mistake that leaders make. They often feel threatened by people who are smarter than them, so they want yes men around them. My attitude is that I want smart people around me who know more than I do because I can’t master all of the tasks and subject matters required to be president. This is one of reasons why you need women in government, why you want ethnic minorities, people from different socio-economic strata. Because we all have blind spots and the more diversity and viewpoints you have, the more likely somebody would be able to cover those blind spots, help you execute, perform and succeed.”

 

By the people

“What we need more of in terms of global leadership is people who are comfortable with and understand complexity. But of course, this requires citizens to be comfortable with it too. Part of the challenge we have as humans is that when things gets complicated and confusing, we tend to want to block it out and look for simple answers. So sometimes, we get the leadership that reflects our own insecurities or problems. If we keep electing somebody whose basic message is: ‘All your problems are the result of a bad group over there that’s not like us’; ‘There’s no such thing as climate change, so you don’t have to worry about it, just keep doing what you’re doing’, that’s not just the leader’s fault. That’s our fault. This is not just a challenge of leadership; this is a challenge of global citizenship.”

 

The key to bouncing back

“Michelle and I joke, right now, people appreciate us. They didn’t always when I was in office. Part of keeping steady is to just have a sense of humour about things. We take the work seriously, not take ourselves so seriously. To the extent that I was a successful president, that I helped move the world in a better direction, it was not because I didn’t make mistakes, was without flaws. I say that because I remind young leaders: ‘You will make mistakes, and you have to be in position where you can laugh at yourself and your flaws and get back up and use that as a tool for resilience.’ People who take themselves too seriously are usually too brittle and can’t bounce back.”

(Related: Books that Obama and other thought leaders have been reading)