Monday, January 05, 2009

"I'm here to listen and learn" is an Obama refrain: Is he for real?

When I happened upon a CBC documentary on Barack Obama’s visit to Africa in August 2006, I couldn’t help think---is he for real? Over and over again he said to the ordinary folks, “I am here to listen and learn.” Frankly, I couldn’t believe my ears. The words almost sounded strange because they have not been commonly used by George W. Bush. “I’m the decider” has been more his style and phraseology.

After too many years of that kind of rigid leadership, I view Barack Obama through slightly jaded eyes. It is not that I don’t want to believe in what he is saying and how well he has put together a transition team. It’s just going to take some getting used to. The natural tendency is to not let one’s expectations rise too high in case they are dashed!

But, to use the well-worn phrase, I am “cautiously optimistic”. Scientists likely identify with my feelings. When President-elect Obama announced Steven Chu, a Nobel-prize winning physicist as his Energy Secretary, according to various media reports, most let out a collective sigh of relief.

Obama’s words on the role of science in his administration no doubt came as a happy shock. “My administration will value science.” “We will make decisions based on facts and we understand that the facts demand bold action.” Yikes! Can he really mean this? After years of ideology trumping science and non-scientists over-ruling scientists, is Obama really going to stay the course of not omitting inconvenient facts if they don’t suit his position?

A look back into Obama’s history yields some hope, literally. His book Dreams from My Father is chock full of clues. Barack Obama’s mother set the stage for his values. Obama describes his mother as “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, (and) position-paper liberalism.” His father’s birthplace in Kenya provided concrete evidence of the struggles of ordinary folks. He also witnessed the poverty, the corruption and the constant battle for security in Indonesia where he lived for a while with his mother and her second husband. Empathy for the little people appears to have been “bred in his bones”.

Obama tells story after story of observing the challenges of people in his travels and most significantly through his efforts at becoming an effective community organizer. This is a guy who went around interviewing people in a down and out area of Chicago to find out what they wanted to change to make their lives better. Various mentors took Barack Obama under their wings and slowly but surely helped him through the extremely frustrating challenge of community development. My head tells me that no one would hang in for as long as Obama did without being truly sincere in his quest to help, to listen and learn.

In his words, he describes the apathy he encountered in a neighborhood and the insights that arose from such an experience: “As it was, many had already given up the hope that politics could actually improve their lives…” “Yet what concerned me wasn’t just the damage loose talked caused efforts at coalition building, or the emotional pain it caused others. It was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people.” “The continuing struggle to align word and action” and the role of self-esteem in rising out of despair, “led me into organizing.”

Now, he has been given a chance to align word with action on the world stage. This deeply curious and reflective leader has a huge agenda and also a strong foundation where he has learned what matters at the feet of ordinary/extraordinary people.

I will watch with great anticipation. His lessons of triumph and failure will be a backdrop for learning more about how to succeed as a leader in our current world of chaos and opportunity.

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