A few years ago Carmen and I (Dave) were in Yosemite National Park in California when the US government was shut down.
While we gazed up at the magnificent heights of El Capitan, rangers walked up and told us we had to get out of the park immediately. So much for the week of exploring we had planned.
The shutdown was triggered by a stoush between Democrats and Republicans that boiled down to funding the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare.”
Though we were disappointed, we felt that if we had to miss out on Yosemite so the President could fight to make the US health system better, then so be it. After all, our lives had been vastly improved by Australia’s Medicare system.
This extremely minor episode in the history of the United States came to mind as I read President Obama’s biography A Promised Land, whose doorstop 768-page length book spans the first term of his time in office.
It’s long, but I read it quickly, and as I turned the pages I picked out three recurring themes that hold just some of the wisdom shared by the 44th President of the United States.
Business takeaways from A Promised Land:
1. Yes we can… if we do the hard yards
Obama’s mantra is that we must do what is hard and what is right, not what is easy or convenient.
But he also acknowledges that politics is always murky, requiring plenty of compromise, haggling and deal-making to get even the semblance of progress underway.
These make A Promised Land a surprisingly honest, frank, and reflective biography, a far cry from the usual self-justifying political screeds I’ve read over the years.
Obama’s famous campaign chan of ‘Yes we can’ is inspiring and stirring, urging people to look beyond their daily concerns and see a wider, larger, fairer, more inclusive way of living.
But he also takes pains to point out that vision needs grit, dreams need work, and even the most reasonable and straightforward idea can become beset with difficulties.
That’s no reason not to take the challenge on though. As Obama says, we must deal with “the world as it is” as we seek to change it.
Above our desks at Red Platypus, we have a whiteboard with the words “we can do this,” but also “work beats fear”.
Businesses – especially small, independent ones – are often leaping into the unknown. And while that takes courage, Obama reminds us that when we dream big we also need to work our arses off to get there.
2. We work best without a safety net
The first parts of A Promised Land address Obama’s rise from Senator to Democratic contender to President, detailing how his campaign harnessed the power of emerging digital networks and grassroots activism to win the day.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and his team repeatedly remind themselves that they work best without a safety net, going all-in on policies, positions, debates and confrontations.
No half measures. No wavering. They have a go and do it as best they can without flinching.
Sometimes it doesn’t work, there’s no safety net, and they fall.
But when it works, it works brilliantly, because it’s authentic and real, and people respond to them in a genuine way.
To me, it’s a reminder that sometimes in business it’s worth taking a punt and doing something risky, or something you’re uncomfortable with.
Just last week, Carmen and I attended a business expo hosted by the Wanneroo Business Association where we created a stall and chatted to more than 70 business owners over four quick hours.
We had never done anything like that before, and there was no safety net. But at the end of the day, we were excited by what we’d done and how much we’d enjoyed it. Way better than staying in the home office and playing it safe!
3. Always follow your instincts
On Christmas Day, 2009, a man on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 ignited a bomb sewn into his underwear.
The device flamed and popped but didn’t explode as planned, and passengers on board tackled the man as the plane landed safely.
Writing in A Promised Land, President Obama says when he was notified about the terrorist incident, his first instinct was to immediately address the American people.
But advisors swayed him to wait for more information before speaking.
He admits this was the wrong call – that Americans needed to hear from him quickly for reassurance and leadership, even if the details were still sketchy.
From then on he vowed to listen to his gut more, and back his own judgement instead of turning to everyone else for their opinions first.
Perhaps this is the best lesson the book teaches. That we must listen to our own instincts first, instead of being led by trends, the latest research, someone else’s opinion or model.
And remember, yes we can. It just takes some hard work to get there.