We live in a world where the loudest voice is usually the one that’s listened to.
This is the world of the “alpha” (usually male, but not always) – the person who wants you to KNOW they are important, that they have no weaknesses, that they need no sleep, and they are the smartest person in the room…nay, the universe.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
That’s why it is so significant when you encounter a public figure who approaches their role as leader in a totally different way. Recently, that public figure was Michelle Obama.
I’ve had the opportunity to see her speak in person twice this year. The first time was at WorkHuman – a conference dedicated to thinking about work in a different, more “whole person” way. The second time was recently, when the former First Lady spoke at the Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s (WFCO) 30th anniversary celebration forum. Both sessions were impressive, moving and thought-provoking. But it was at the WFCO event that I was really struck by the humanity of Michelle Obama as a leader.
The conversation at WFCO was incredibly personal – less about policy and big picture approach (although that was there, too), and more about how she grew up and how her experiences as a woman (and especially as a woman of color) shape her view of the world.
It wasn’t so much about what Michelle Obama said; it was more about the WAY she said it. She admitted when she got emotional (even asked for a Kleenex). She was honest when she said the hateful things people said about her hurt. You believed her when she talked about her strength, and you marvelled at how matter-of-factly she warned against assuming she was the role model above all other role models.
Her approach suggests that a leader can show vulnerability while displaying strength. In fact, that very vulnerability is proof of strength – an understated confidence in self-worth that allows for the leader to lay their emotions bare.
Some moments from the conversation that stood out to me:
- On family and background: Michelle Obama spoke at length about her upbringing, focusing particularly on the extended family aspect. Her love and respect for the “village” that raised her was evident, as was the high bar her father set for any other man in her life. (She’s looking at you, Barack.) She was also INCREDIBLY honest about the reality of her family, “We had our share of everything in our family – we had teachers, and police officers,…and drunks.” Takeaway: The extended support network gave her several role models who were vital to her success as a person and as a public figure.
- On childhood and role models: One of my favorite quotes from the evening came when Michelle Obama discussed the challenges of being a teenager. First, she admonished against making any life choices during the teenage years. No one has any idea of what they want or who they really are – it’s not until you’ve lived some life until you become your full self. But the quote I loved: “I used to tell my daughters, please don’t get your life advice from other 14-yr-olds.” Takeaway: It’s tough growing up, especially today. Kids need role models everywhere – not just public figures. YOU could be someone’s role model.
- On bullying and trolls: Here is where the reality of a public life stood out. Michelle Obama has been called awful things. She has had to endure attacks on her husband, her children, and herself. And these are deeply personal attacks. When asked how it made her feel, she said, “It made me feel the way they intended it to make me feel. But the question should be about my feelings. It should be about why that person felt they could say that in the first place.” Takeaway: Damn straight. 100% agree.
- On hurting and pain: This is tied to the bullying discussion, but it’s so much more specific to those in our society who feel they don’t have a voice. “If under-represented people don’t say they hurt, then it lets the people who say awful things off the hook.” Takeaway: Voice your discomfort. Speak out when someone does something inappropriate to you or to others. Don’t let jerks off the hook.
- On acting locally: Some of the topics touched on in the evening were as all-encompassing as education, healthcare, and setting public policy. But Michelle Obama reminded everyone to start locally. Each person has the capacity to be a role model, to help someone in their own way. Takeaway: We can’t all set national policy, but we CAN all treat each other appropriately.
- On failure and strength: Michelle Obama talked a lot about the strength of women – from everything to childbirth, to high heels, to emotional tests. “Women live every day with thousands of little cuts they get from the rest of the world, but they still get up and keep going.” These cuts have become so second nature to many, that they don’t even notice them any more. And keeping with the theme of speaking up, the former First Lady reminded all of us to talk about our failures to keep role models grounded in reality. “Failure is like a cut – some are deeper than others, some hurt more than others. But all cuts heal with time.” The cuts change – they may scar, we may still see them, but they’re a part of us. Takeaway: The absence of failure is not strength. The ability to share failure and learn from it is true strength.
- On running for political office: Michelle Obama has stated quite clearly that she will not seek election, now or ever. She will, however, remain in public service for the rest of her life. It’s too much a part of who she is and what she wants to focus on in the future – girls’ education, health, and helping women find a community for themselves for support. Besides, she’s far too experienced to want to go through a public election again: “I won’t be running for public office. I know you love me. Until I run. And then you’ll be annoyed by me. I know how this works.” Takeaway: We get it. It’s not in the cards. But maybe she’ll reconsider?
As angry as I get at misogyny and systematized discrimination (and I get angry), I’m not a “sisterhood” kind of person. It doesn’t work for me. As a result, the first part of the evening didn’t resonate with me (but I’m dead inside. Seriously, WFCO does some truly amazing things – check them out). I’m an idea person, not a person person, so it’s rare when I’m in awe of a person.
I’m in awe of Michelle Obama. Regardless of your politics, her approach to people and to leadership is inspiring. In her mind, it’s not about what she can do. It’s about what she can help everyone do – which is the mark of a good leader.
Vulnerability and strength. It’s a powerful combination.