This Thanksgiving, like many of you, I spent a few minutes contemplating my many blessings. One blessing in particular provoked a surprising flood of gratitude in my heart: I am deeply and profoundly thankful to Barack Obama for his service to our country over the past eight years.
No, this is not a back door to rant about politics or elections. And certainly there are issues, unfinished business, and decisions about which there is passionate disagreement and debate as befits a healthy democracy. None of these differences diminish my appreciation. In these demanding years, President Obama has been a leader of unquestioned character and integrity, true to our highest ideals and aspirations as a nation.
He passed the most important test of leadership. He inherited a mess. The country was on the edge of an economic abyss with many industries in tatters. We were losing men and women in uniform to uncertain purpose. The ebullient Big Easy was a soggy, sad disaster, and our confidence as a nation was at a low ebb.
What a different nation our new President inherits. By any objective measures we have recovered and prospered as an unmatched center of creativity, innovation, and promise that continues to attract those around the world who seek a better life. We continue to hold our position of leadership and power militarily. And throughout the eight years of chaotic politics we continue to confront big problems when we fall short, as we often do, engaging in furious debate and demanding change. This huge, noisy, diverse, strong, and striving society is now bequeathed to the future. President Obama passed a major test of leadership excellence with flying colors, giving to his successor a stronger and more resilient country than the one he took on.
Beyond measurable results, President Obama inspired us and made us proud of our country. Here’s one example that touched me deeply. October 28, 2009, early morning, Dover Airbase. Our president stood at rigid attention, delivering a perfect salute honoring eighteen of our fallen heroes delivered home for the last time. On seeing the photograph of this man confronting the terrible cost of war, I wrote my first letter to a president. I framed the photograph and my letter and I hung it on my office wall so all could see the profile of a dedicated leader.
He is a man of true courage who took risks, and made significant decisions in the face of aggressive opposition. The long term impacts are yet to be revealed but there is no doubt that he took a stand on health care, climate change, Iran, and equal opportunity for our citizens. His guiding vision was to make America a fairer and more inclusive country. As we listened to my brother-in-law, Marc, state his commitment in marriage to his long-time partner, Gary, my wife and I stood proud and joyful at the very private love revealed to us and the very public progress our country had made toward a more caring and benevolent society.
Over the years, President Obama has had far too many occasions to console us, but as man of courage and character, he rose to this calling most tenderly. Who was not awed as he broke into song, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound”? Grace.
And talent! This man embodies the American dream in rising from the most modest of beginnings to the heights through a combination of intellect, talent, grit and helping hands along the way and in so doing inspires us all. That his magnificent wife Michelle would have him speaks to his greatness. That she would love him (and he her) so apparently makes us all a little jealous. How does he find time to be a loving, if somewhat baffled father to two bright young women? He does it because it matters to him.
Now let’s talk about platform skills. He gives a great speech. And let’s just say it…he’s cool. I’ve seen him a number of times in real working sessions where he showed again and again that he is smart, tough, engaged, unflappable, and funny! He listened closely to bad news, asked clarifying questions, and followed up. He’s a tough negotiator, keeping his eye on the main chance.
Picture this: President Obama is sitting on a high stool. No notes. No staff close by. Surrounded by one hundred CEOs, mostly hostile, armed with unfriendly questions and positions. An hour into the meeting he had handled every question directly, with respect and knowledge. A masterful performance. And now, we see him gracefully and generously engaging with the next elected president. What self-control. This man chooses to rise to the occasion as a magnificent testimony to his belief in our system and respect for the will of the people.
Thank you Mr. President. I hope our paths cross again. You have so many gifts yet to share. We will miss you.
Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.