Obama in Cairo: Finding Our Common Humanity

President Obama waded into the treacherous waters of Middle East politics last week with his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. In so doing, he gave us a simple lesson in bridge-building leadership that we can learn from.  What made it a success were words and ideas that valued honesty, fairness and respect in an effort to find common ground – no easy feat in a region torn by division and violence for more than 50 years.

As with any single speech, critics found reasons to complain. But the president wasn’t trying to solve every problem, he simply tried to establish a new foundation on which adversaries could begin to address old problems in new ways.  One key reason for his success was his tone – no posturing, finger pointing or false promises that we have seen in too many political speeches.  And he used his personal story effectively to connect with his audience.

In my mind, three key elements of the speech made it a success, providing a set of guidelines for leaders who need to build bridges:

Setting high standards – While the speech wasn’t intended to set detailed policy, the president wasn’t afraid to articulate his standards for achieving common goals, chief among them his firm commitment to a two-state solution.  It’s important for a leader to clarify his view of the forest (big picture), before he gets into the trees (details).

Using soft power – Unlike other political or business leaders, the president didn’t try to force feed his ideas to a reluctant or ambivalent audience. As we’ve seen before with Obama, he used reason and our common humanity to engage a wide range of people with vastly different views and perspectives, noting that “Americans are ready to join with the citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders, and business in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.”  Here again, we’re not above you, we’re with you.

Promoting trust and transparency – The president’s frank criticisms of all sides in the conflict were easier to accept because they were tempered by his fairness and tone.  Let’s not forget, he’s the Commander in Chief and president of the most powerful country on the planet, yet his approach was to engage his audience as equals and not talk down to anyone, in order to create an environment of transparency and trust.

Setting high standards. Finding common ground. Building trust and transparency.  Identifying personally with the audience.  Whatever your political beliefs, any CEO or team leader today would be wise to follow suit. It’s the best way to get people on board to meet tough challenges.

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