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Barack Obama Shares His Lessons Learned on Leadership and Power

May 10, 2017, 12:55 PM UTC

The power and responsibilities of the U.S. presidency are unique and unmatched—only 44 people have ever had the job. On Tuesday, former President Barack Obama offered a glimpse inside the world’s most powerful office. Obama was discussing food policy and climate change at Seeds&Chips, a global food and innovation summit in Milan, but he also offered up some of the lessons he learned inside the White House on leadership, power, and effecting change. It was his first speech to an international audience since his term ended.

Failing publicly can be liberating. Obama said that the people who know him say he did not change much during his presidency, and “I’m happy about that.” Obama said that rather than starting to believe his own hype, “I actually found I became more humble the longer I was in office.” He also became less fearful. He said that as president of the United States, you make a mistake every day, everyone has seen you fail, and “large portions of the country think you’re an idiot.” But he said it was “a liberating feeling” when you realize it’s okay, you’re still here, and you have the chance to do some good. As time went on, he said he got rid some of those anxieties.

Empower others. So often we think of leadership “as someone at the top who is ordering other people around,” Obama said. He learned that leadership was teaching people who thought they didn’t have a voice to speak up about the things impacting their lives.

Power is isolating. Obama said that one of the hardest things about being the U.S. president is the way the job is “unique in its isolation.” While the burdens of leadership are real in any country, he said because of the security apparatus around the U.S. president, you live in a bubble—“a very nice prison.” You don’t have the freedom to take a walk or sit at a café, he said. “I don’t miss that. Now I’m only captive to selfies, which is almost as bad. I can walk anywhere as long as I’m willing to take a selfie every two steps.”

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It’s not enough to be the squeaky wheel. Obama said that politicians and governments respond to people making noise and demands. But the biggest mistake made by activists “is once you’ve gotten the attention of people in power then you have to engage them and have sensible ideas.” Obama added that you have to do you homework, have your facts straight, and be willing to compromise. He is addressing this issue head on with the Obama Presidential Center, which is designed to help the next generation of activist leadership.

Know how to shape public opinion in the internet age. Obama said that his campaign’s use of social media was advanced at the time, but technology moves so quickly that today it already seems outdated. Shaping public opinion in the internet age means finding and keeping up with ways to speak to young people who are getting all of their information off their phone, he said, and won’t read a lengthy report. He paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, saying, “With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done,” adding: “I learned that firsthand myself.”