How Obama Leads

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.

Obama continued to demonstrate these leadership skills in his almost flawless transition. By selecting his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, as his Secretary of State, and reaching across party lines to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, he showed openness to strong subordinates. In his inaugural address, he sounded the themes of smart power – a willingness “to extend an open hand to those who unclench their fists” – but also stressed themes of responsibility as Americans confront sobering economic problems.