I Can Be Anything I Want to Be When I…
The events of President Barack Obama’s inauguration day uplifted and inspired me. I am especially struck by the responses that youth—especially black youth—gave to reporters in the interviews I watched. Interview responses unanimously consisted of some version of, “Now I can be anything I want to be.” It thrills me to have a person of color visible in the highest public office of our nation. Such a visual is an inspiring and encouraging factor for helping youth and young adults believe they can achieve more than they believed they could prior to having such an image for motivation.
The “be anything I want to be” attitude is encouraging. Yet there is more to actually achieving this goal than simply seeing oneself in another person’s image. Consider ten lessons in addition to accepting a visible skin color if we are to achieve anything we want to achieve. Additional lessons President Barack Obama—as well as First Lady Michelle Obama—embody for us to consider in our own success journeys include:
1. Command of language skills
The ability to communicate clearly is the single most important key to success. This skill enables success in our personal and professional relationships. When two people do not communicate clearly with each other, then what is in their minds and in their hearts might as well stay inside. Another person cannot know fully what we think and feel if we do not communicate clearly. Nor can we hope to persuade large groups of people to think, feel, and take action in ways in which we desire if we lack a command of word choice, use, grammar, phrasing, and the power of oratory skills.
Speak clearly and persuasively. Master business writing skills. Establish readable penmanship. Proficiency with electronic communications is important, yet “old school” interpersonal communications still determine your levels of professional success.
2. Personal presence; appropriate attire
Before a single word escapes our mouths, we create first impressions by how we look. Personal presence is how we carry ourselves and use our space. Our posture, movements, gestures, attitude, eye contact, and other non-verbal signals combine to convey a presence about us. Our attire and grooming also contribute to how others first perceive us. We can create the image we want people to have of us by choosing to look the part and projecting the attitude that represents that image. Much is made of the Obamas’ attire. While some observations are fashion rhetoric, others note how their clothing, accoutrements, and presence exude the power they now represent.
Study how people portray the images they project of themselves—positives and negatives—and adopt the appropriate non-verbal cues for the image of yourself that you want to convey. Remember the adage that successful people “look and act” successful.
3. Supportive family In our diverse society, “family” encompasses more than a traditionally-defined nuclear family. However we define family for ourselves, supportive primary relationships keep us grounded. A support structure that consists of varying levels of intimacy—passing acquaintances, professional colleagues, buddies (male and female) we can meet for fun events, close life-long friends, intimate love relationships, “members of the family tree”, and everything in-between—meets multiple levels of social and emotional needs in our lives at different points in our lives.
Successful people associate with successful people at many levels. Establish your support system to encourage you to achieve what you want to achieve, yet help you remain grounded to the person and values that represent your true essence. You must have someone with whom you can “let your hair down”, as well as someone who will tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear.
4. Lack of excuses—about unjust pasts; race; gender; other slights We marvel at how some people seem to transcend their demographics. I believe this means that people behave in ways that contradict society’s categorization of them based on demographic characteristics. To be a person who “transcends race”, one consistently acts in ways that society attributes to “not being like others” of that race. The same goes for gender, regional representation, and other demographic categories. We all categorize people based on our previous experiences with and perceptions of those categories. This is not prejudice; it is human nature.
Notice that those who achieve higher levels of success—however you define success to be—typically accept their histories and backgrounds, yet refuse to dwell on aspects of themselves that can hold them back from their goals. Rather than hold to reasons “why I cannot” and “who did what to whom (in the past)”, move forward to “how, and with whom, can I succeed, tomorrow”.
5. Discipline and hard work; focus and purpose Luck has nothing to do with success. Belief in a higher power, alone, will leave you just where you are…believing. Note that I said “alone”. Beliefs are important, yet action is more so. Barack Obama did not just happen to become President within four years of his first national presence. He set goals, believed in himself, had others who believed in him, sought people who mentored him and worked for him, implemented specific plans and strategies that supported his goals, and worked tirelessly to achieve the Oval Office (as well as milestones along the way).
There is a saying about luck being 20% aptitude and 80% attitude. I like to think luck is a combination of aptitude, opportunity, attitude, passion, preparation, and action.
6. Sense of humor, and fun-loving attitude One of the most noticeable features in pictures and videos of President and First Lady Obama and family are their smiles. They seem to enjoy life whether they face criticism or receive praise. They exude enthusiasm and appear determined to keep upbeat through adversity. The campaign trail had plenty of stumps and grit and muddy water to stop them along the way, and their time in the White House will be no less fraught with frustrations. Yet when I watched them walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and at other captured moments I got a strong sense that they will enjoy themselves in the years to come.
A sense of humor and fun-loving attitude are contagious. Serious business and intense focus become more palatable when laced with a bit of lightness. When we demonstrate that we take ourselves less seriously, those around us seek our counsel and find comfort in our association more easily. Communication channels open more effectively when humor and fun are in the air. Humor helps us manage stress, fight health issues, and age more gracefully.
7. Education; study; reading
Education opens doors to the world. Education may come in the form of formal K-12 schooling, post-high school and graduate curriculum, technical programs, special studies, and continual reading. Learning is a life-long process for everyone, while some doors of opportunity open only to those with formal degrees. Education enables us to see possibilities we otherwise miss.
Stories abound of people who return to school to earn degrees years and decades after “life happens”. They reinforce the adage that it is seldom too late to get an education. Learning must not stop after formal education. Read a mix of book genres, newspapers, and other publications for a continual, well-rounded education.
8. Work well with different people—ideologies; ethnicities; gender; socio-economic backgrounds; ages; lifestyle choices If everyone with whom we associate is like us, then all we hear are echoes. I regularly encounter people in leadership positions who say, “Tell me what you think because I want a different perspective,” yet few respond in ways that prove the statement valid. We have a natural comfort level with associating with people we identify as “like us”, however we define that to be. Businesses, schools, and other organizations institute policies of openness and integration, yet when we seat ourselves in lunchrooms and other self-selecting venues we often segregate ourselves with those with whom we feel most comfortable.
Step out of comfort zones. Find ways to meet, learn about, and benefit from viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences of different kinds of people. Doing so takes a conscious effort. Question pre-conceived notions, look beyond past experiences, and set aside egos. Be willing to listen openly, evaluate alternative solutions, and compromise while staying focused on shared goals.
9. Accept that not everyone will like you, and work to earn their respect The most difficult aspect of leading a group of people, for me, is looking someone in the eye, realizing that person does not like me, and knowing I must earn his or her respect and trust in order to achieve organizational goals. President Obama won the election by 53% of the popular vote. (Source: RealClearPolitics.com) That means 47% of American voters voted for someone else (or none of the Presidential candidates). While a vote for someone else does not mean they do not like President Obama, it certainly means a difference of ideology or agreement. Now that he is President he is responsible to everyone—whether “for” or “against” his policies. He cannot take things personally. He decides, and acts, for the good of the entire organization which in his case is the United States of America and its territories.
To do the things we need to do to lead and succeed we have little chance of being liked by everyone. If we remain true to our values, act ethically and responsibly, communicate honestly, convey empathy, lead fairly and consistently, and focus on a greater good that benefits human-kind, we will most likely earn the respect we seek.
10. Possess an attitude of gratitude—humility where appropriate; service to others When we see the public personas of people we deem successful at high-levels, humility is a characteristic little in evidence. Contrary to appearances, many of these same people admit—in private—to being humbled by their positions of influence or acquisitions of wealth. They appreciate what they have and feel the weight of their responsibilities to others. Those who show gratitude through sincere words of thanks, or subtle non-verbal signals, or significant acts that help others, win people’s hearts as well as get things done.
Humility and weakness are not synonymous. We can convey our gratitude through humble acts and strengthen how others perceive us. Service to others is more noble than service to self. The more quietly we serve, with less fanfare about it, the more sincerely our actions are perceived. Show appreciation, praise others often and honestly, and use two powerful words appropriately…“Thank you”.
“I can be anything I want to be now that I see President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.” Perhaps. Yes, a child sees an image upon which to mark a dream; an image that did not exist for that child—ever—before November 4, 2008 or January 20, 2009. Yet in order for that dream to become a reality, master the other lessons we also see represented by and in these two new American icons.
Sylvia Henderson is an expert on the “people skills” for business and workplace success. She facilitates workshops, speaks, hosts a television program, and writes about work-life skills for success. She can be reached at SpringboardTraining.com.