A Promised Land by Barack Obama

There has been a lot of press following the release of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs. Many of the reviews point out how much our former President reveals his humanity in A Promised Land — the hefty volume that is only part one of two. The book is regarded as a beautifully-written, intimate and in-depth look into his youth and career in the years leading up to the presidency, followed by his first 2.5 years in office. It has been said to inspire us Americans to believe in ourselves and our democracy again and to encourage young people that they can make a difference where it is needed most. This is all true, yet this book is so much more than that. Obama was a leader who inspired me and others to see ourselves as a change agent for a more promising and more perfect union.

Having significant business interests in Illinois, I crossed paths with the young state senator even before the 2004 breakout speech at the Democratic National Convention that nominated John Kerry. I later saw Senator Obama on the campaign trail as he barnstormed around the country helping congressional candidates prior to the November 2006 midterm elections, all the while developing a national framework of friends.

As a slightly politically-minded business leader, I called myself a Republican in my early business years and voted for George W. Bush in 2000. I regretted that decision almost immediately and was vehemently opposed to the giant tax cuts for the wealthy that put us on track to have tremendous deficits in the future. I believed it was unnecessary and that the country simply couldn’t afford it. And then Iraq happened and I was officially converted. At some point, even my young teenage daughter questioned how the Clarks could contribute and do our part to “right the ship.” To say that I jumped on the Obama bandwagon early and wholeheartedly would be an understatement.

I hosted a couple of events where I was able to have lunch with Senator Obama, in which I would encourage him to run for president. In October 2006 at an event for Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, he told me he had not made a decision, just as he had told many people up to that point. The very next day everything changed, and his team reached out to invite me to Chicago to join the unfolding journey. The decision had been long and arduous for him, and he details it beautifully in this book.

Over the next 28 months, I had a front-row seat, as I attended, staffed, or hosted 54 events with the Senator. One of the most memorable moments of my life was when I was seated on the platform at the inauguration, looking out at the sea of well-wishers through teary eyes.

A Promised Land is a beautifully-written narration of history in the making. President Obama has always been a great storyteller and orator. Having read his earlier books and listened to hundreds of his speeches, it’s terrific to see and hear how far he’s come as an author and speaker. If you have the opportunity to listen to the audio version, it’s very artfully done and includes many laugh-inducing voice impersonations.

For me personally, having watched the journey so closely, it was fascinating to recollect my own thinking at the time as I was trying to solve some of the mysteries of everything that was happening along the way. In any case, the book will be a captivating read for even the most casual observer, as it relays some great behind-the-scenes highlights and the reasoning behind some of the tortured decision-making processes that pundits all tried to solve in real-time.

Being in politics can be a thankless way to try and make a difference, one that honestly keeps too many incredible and qualified people from jumping into the arena. Thank goodness Barack and his family were willing to endure all the difficulties that came along with his amazing journey that continues to make America a better place. They gave us all a glimpse of a more promising future.

Besides the fascinating account of Obama’s journey, the book is filled with meaningful lessons, particularly around leadership, a few of which I would like to share here.

Powerful leadership is built not by putting others down, but by lifting them up.

This is a lesson that Obama learned from his mother. I saw the campaign up close and witnessed his leadership in requiring that we all take the high road in what could have been an ugly strategy.

Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies.”

Obama and his team thrived on the optimistic and positive messaging. Fired up: Ready to go!

Just because things don’t go how you want them the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up.

Like many of us experience, Obama had his fair share of failures and losses. The first time he tried to run for Congress, he failed miserably. I know from setbacks at Clayco that if you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough. These have always been some of my best learning experiences.

Leadership is about being a workhorse, not a show horse.

I’ve thankfully been dealt many humbling experiences in my life, and especially since I began to lead a company, which have prevented me from thinking that I need to be a showoff. When he was first elected to the Senate, Obama’s strategy wasn’t to show off, it was to work hard and get things done. He wasn’t there for the fame. I have always said that outworking your competitors will always yield dividends, and my dad always said “The Job is The Boss.” Obama is the epitome of these work ethic messages.

When we are strangers to our neighbors, we rely on stereotypes rather than actually getting to know people. And then things never change.

Barack Obama tells many stories throughout the book about how many of his decisions are inspired by conversations that he had with people he met early on in his career when he was doing grassroots work in Chicago, or even after that when he encountered people at barbecues, in the grocery store, and anywhere and everywhere he would chat with others. One of the things he learned early on is that nothing will change if we don’t stop to actually get to know people, even people that we assume are different than us. Many of these differences, he states, have to do with how the media portrays people and various stereotypes.

“The more I listened, the more people opened up.”

Listening is essential. Business leaders have to talk a lot and so do politicians. But, the best of the best are the empathetic listeners who can remake what they hear into actionable plans forward.

Common courtesy speaks across cultures.

Common courtesy speaks across all kinds of borders. Leaders who act like they are superior to those they lead, or their clients, or even their competitors, set themselves up for all kinds of problems.

This book is an absolute must-read, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on. It gives readers some insight into the politics that make up our country and perhaps, more importantly, reminds us of the vulnerable humanity of our leaders that can be transformed into the power to do amazing things.

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