How Obama Leads

People judge leaders not only by the effectiveness of their actions, but also by the meanings that they create and teach. The test of Barack Obama's leadership will be whether he can make difficult decisions while creating a larger sense of meaning in which America once again exports hope rather than fear.

CAMBRIDGE – Two years ago, Barack Obama was a first-term senator from a mid-western state who had declared his interest in running for the presidency. Many people were skeptical that an African-American with a strange name and little national experience could win. But as his campaign unfolded, he demonstrated that he possessed the powers to lead – both soft and hard.

Soft power is the ability to attract others, and the three key soft-power skills are emotional intelligence, vision, and communications. In addition, a successful leader needs the hard-power skills of organizational and Machiavellian political capacity. Equally important is the contextual intelligence that allows a leader to vary the mix of these skills in different situations to produce the successful combinations that I call “smart power.”

During his campaign, Obama demonstrated these skills in his calm response to crises, his forward-looking vision, and his superb organizational ability. In addition, his contextual intelligence about world politics has been shaped from the bottom up with experience in Indonesia and Kenya, and his understanding of American politics was shaped from the bottom up as a community organizer in Chicago.

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