6 big ideas on leadership from President Barack Obama

Many executives don't consider their legacy until they plan to leave. However, the average hospital CEO spends less than 3.5 years in their post, according to a 2013 Black Book Rankings poll. With so few years to make a difference, hospital CEOs must make the most of their tenure — and set the tone for the future.

In what Vanity Fair calls "The Ultimate Exit Interview," President Obama sits down with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, PhD, to discuss his legacy and its context within the legacies of his predecessors. No matter how the American people choose to remember President Obama, his tenure leaves several lessons in its wake.

Based on President Obama's interview with Dr. Goodwin, are six big ideas on leadership and legacy from the 44th president.

1. Chase your "peculiar ambitions." During President Abraham Lincoln's first run for office at age 23 he said, "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem," according to Dr. Goodwin.

When asked how he would describe his own peculiar ambition and its development, President Obama explained his belief that ambitions are common when we are young — we want to prove ourselves and gain notoriety. But once a leader begins to achieve some of that notoriety or face adversity, the sense of ambition for ambition's sake begins to dissipate, allowing true passions take hold. "And if you don't go through that, then you start getting into trouble, because then you're just [gesturing, as if climbing a ladder] clinging to prerogatives and the power and the attention. There's an expression that my daughters use: You get thirsty," President Obama said.

2. Be optimistic, but don't forget the long view. During the interview, President Obama speaks to his unwavering optimism as a way to see past some of the biggest challenges a leader may face. "[I]n the end I think life is fascinating, and I think people are more good than bad, and I think that the possibilities of progress are real," he tells Dr. Goodwin.

But, he also spoke of tempering that optimism with a healthy perspective of time, and the capacity to see what will stay relevant centuries later. "I don't buy the hype when everybody is saying how wonderful things are and how great I am," he said. The pyramids are the only remaining icons of the Egyptian pharaohs, President Obama notes. Just like the popularity of those leaders, today's opinion polls will also fade. "What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?" he asks.

3. Nothing is accomplished alone. "I am a firm believer that you don't do anything significant by yourself," President Obama told Dr. Goodwin. For these reasons, President Obama embraced one of his chief rivals in his inner circle when he made Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. As Dr. Goodwin called it, he was building a "team of rivals." He credited his accomplishments in office to staff, legislators and others he worked to get things done. And he said he is ready to pass the baton to the next president to build, refine and improve on the groundwork laid over the past eight years.

4. Get and stay with the times. President Obama admits he can be long-winded, especially during the age of the Internet and shortened attention spans. Although he believes the American people are sophisticated enough to handle it, he has also embraced "this whole other media ecology out there," which includes social media, comedy, talk shows and memes. "I [give] maybe the long-winded speeches that not everybody reads, but I can also do a slow jam on Jimmy Fallon better than most," he said. He added, "I think I have a pretty good take on popular culture that maybe makes up for the fact that I'm not a sound-bite politician for the nightly news."

5. Don't be overwhelmed by big decisions, but don't get comfortable with them either. While some of his decisions continue to haunt him, President Obama said he never feared he couldn't make the best decisions possible. "The times where I had been anguished almost exclusively had to do with deploying our men and women overseas… I remember giving a speech at West Point and seeing all those amazing young people and knowing that some would be sent and not every one of them would come back. Weighing that — those never get easy," he said, adding that he never wants that weight to feel light. "I don't want my generals or my defense secretary or my national security team to ever feel deploying weapons to kill people as routine or abstract, even if the targets are bad people."

6. Know when to let go. This particular lesson is something President Obama took from George Washington, because he was the first to exercise this restraint. To this day, it remains part of the duty of president to understand when it is time to leave, President Obama told Dr. Goodwin. "As important as taking hold of the office is letting go of the office. And they're of a piece — it is an expression of our fidelity to the ideals upon which this nation was founded," President Obama said.

Read the full interview here.

 

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