If true leadership entails emotional intelligence — and I believe it does — we can look to the current president as an embodiment of what truly emotionally intelligent leadership looks like.
Think about it. The man stepped into office with what must surely be the most ambitious to-do list ever: Stop a burgeoning worldwide financial crisis. Solve global warming. Manage a war in Iraq and a mission in Afghanistan. Stop Iran’s nuclear weapons plan. Reform health care. Strengthen public education. Prop up social security. On his short list he might have just written “save the world.”
Plus he was being asked to find his birth certificate. And we all know what a pain that is.
But he has pretty much stayed cool, calm, and collected throughout. His public persona is one of strength and confidence. He shows empathy when things go wrong; he shows heart and humor when things go right.
Think that’s just all part of being a politician? Compare Obama to Nixon. Or George W. Bush. Or even Bill Clinton, who was politically smart and personally charming but had some issues with impulse control.
Of course, it’s hard to know what a president is like in person. But in the last 14 months in office, Obama has lost his cool only a very few times. (I count saying the Cambridge, Mass., police officers acted “stupidly” for challenging Professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to break into his own home as one political gaffe.) That takes incredible self control, the kind of control that is really only born of self awareness and an understanding of how one missed step can set off a whole series of political landminies.
His example has lessons for us all — on how to respond rather than react in high-pressure moments; how to pretty much ignore mud when it’s flung our way; how to stay calm so we can continue to think clearly in times of crisis. It’s not easy. It takes practice. We all mess up from time to time. But it’s good to have a leader who at least seems to understand what emotional and social intelligence is, who can model what skillful behavior looks like.
But don’t just take it from me. In an interview with a British television station in January, 2009, Doris Kearns Goodwin compared President Obama’s emotional qualities to those of President Lincoln, saying:
First of all and most important the thing you sense about him is that he has this deep well of self-confidence. And that’s really important… And I think on top of that he has this spacious intellect. I mean he has not only read a lot but he’s absorbed it. And he’s a terrific writer in his own right… He told the narrative of his own life in Dreams From My Father in a beautiful fashion. So that’s going to allow him to communicate to the country in ways that Lincoln was able to in those gorgeous public letters that he wrote to the country or the great speeches that we remember so well.
So I think that there is a special quality to this man. There’s also a reserve in him that allows people to not feel immediately that they know who he is, which is part of the magic of leadership… He sort of stands back and there’s a sense in which he’s listening to what people are saying rather than imposing himself on other people. But in the end he’s the one who gets to make the decisions and become the president of the United States.