What makes a good leader? It may seem like a simple question yet it continues to encourage debate among many intellectuals in the field. Many of us may have our own definitions of leadership based on our past experiences and knowledge. To me, a good leader is one who possesses the qualities of honesty, empathy, and resilience, and is able to inspire people for generations to come. One person that I believe exhibits all these qualities and more is Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama was the First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. During her time in the ‘spotlight’, Michelle almost single-handedly brought attention to and elicited change for various social issues, ranging from poverty to children’s education (‘First Lady Michelle Obama’, 2015). She was also a strong advocate for public health and believed that children should be encouraged early on to lead healthy lifestyles. In 2010, Michelle led the war on childhood obesity in the United States by introducing the ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign, an initiative designed to promote physical activity and raise a healthier generation of kids (‘First Lady Michelle Obama’, 2015). She was able to successfully bring together key players from the public and private health sectors, academia, and sports industry to work together to combat childhood obesity (Lee, 2017).
Michelle was also a passionate advocate for healthy eating and campaigned for improved access to healthier foods (Lee, 2017). To lead by example, she planted vegetable gardens on the White House lawn and worked behind the scenes with companies like Walmart to not only reduce the price of healthier foods but also improve their nutritional content (Lynch, 2016). As such, Michelle’s ability to motivate and inspire others to action demonstrates her leadership skills of resilience and commitment. She was able to use her influence as First Lady to lead in admirable ways that have caused her followers to identify her as a leader and support her decisions wholeheartedly.
I believe Michell Obama adopts a predominantly authentic leadership style. To put it simply, authentic leadership relies on the concept of genuineness. This approach to leadership focuses on building trust and integrity through sincere and honest relationships with followers (Leroy, Palanski & Simons, 2012). Typically, authentic leaders show their true selves to their followers and are highly self-aware of their strengths, limitations, and emotions (Klenke, 2007).
A key aspect of Michell’s leadership is how she modeled the behaviors that she would like to see in her followers (Gardner et al., 2005), to show them that she was not asking them to do something that she herself was not prepared to partake in. For instance, the 2010 nationwide campaign led by Michell against childhood obesity was titled ‘Let’s Move!’ rather than ‘You Move!’, suggesting that Michel herself was ready to be active. ‘When I do these things, I’m thinking, if people see me – the First Lady – with my shoes off, running around with kids, sweating . . . making a fool out of yourself, then maybe more moms and dads will say, ‘I can do that, and that actually looks fun’ (‘First lady making strides’, 2011). Beyond the public context, Michelle also lived and enacted her arguments in her daily habits (Brar, 2019). For example, in an interview on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2012, Michell spoke about her daily exercise routine, including how she gets up as early as 4.30 a.m. every morning to work out for an hour. Michelle displayed her private life in public to show that for her, her talk and action are not distinct. Rather than appearing as a detached leader who is disconnected from what they preach, Michelle personified the choices and struggles of living a healthy life, thereby increasing identification with her followers. Authentic leadership encompasses the whole leader and is not a role that can be put ‘on’ and ‘off’, rather it requires consistency and performance that is consistent between word and deed (Shamir and Eilam, 2005). If people see their leader as honest and ‘true’, followers are more likely to trust and align themselves with the leader’s goals (Bishop, 2013). Michelle’s particularly defining leadership traits include her truthfulness and humility. Throughout her time as First Lady, Michelle often spoke openly about her personal life and did not shy away from relating her own experiences (Lynch, 2016). For instance, in an interview with CNN in 2013, Michelle opened up about her childhood and college days. She, however, refrained from mentioning that she went to Princeton University for her higher education, instead simply stating that she attended college, something more relatable to the general population. Furthermore, during a speech at YMCA in 2010 to promote her campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle related her own experiences with her children, stating that her daughters were ‘starting to get off track with their weight before she received a wake-up call from her family pediatrician (Black, 2010). Michelle did not share this personal story out of judgment of her children, rather used it as a tool to demonstrate her motivations for wanting to enact change, thereby developing her position as an authentic leader (Leroy, Palanski & Simons, 2012). By speaking as a parent, Michelle personalized the issue and was able to connect with American parents who could relate to her experiences. Authentic leaders seek to show that they share things in common with their followers and that they are not ‘higher’ than them (Avolio et al., 2004). As such, Michell’s ability to be truly empathetic and relatable allowed her to come across as a very ‘real person to her followers, who in turn, shared her commitment to her goals and ideas (Covelli & Mason, 2017).
An important and perhaps, an understated component of authentic leadership is how leaders deal with their own weaknesses and criticism. Goffee and Jones (2005) explained that strong leaders are not only aware but are able to accept their weaknesses, thereby enabling them to handle criticism and opposition without becoming defensive. During the 2011 Super Bowl, the Obamas’ faced heavy criticism for their party menu that included cheeseburgers, pizza, and ice cream. However, instead of denying her weaknesses, Michelle argued that life was about balance and the ‘occasional treat’ for special occasions. In doing so, she publicly acknowledged that she was not the perfect role model for health and portrayed her more ‘human’ side. When authentic leaders are transparent and honest about their weaknesses, they transfer credibility and trust to their followers, thereby fostering a more effective relationship (Quinn, Spreitzer & Brown, 2000). If Michelle seemed flawless, her followers would have trouble identifying with someone who was so superhumanly ‘perfect’. Instead, by reframing her weaknesses as an aspect of humanity rather than a flaw, Michelle was able to generate trust and augment her position as an authentic leader (George, 2004).
On self-reflection, I believe my leadership style most closely resembles transformational leadership. This style of leadership focuses on motivating, guiding, and inspiring followers to see what they are capable of, and in the process achieve the objectives and goals of the leader (Liu & Li, 2018). For context, I work part-time as a security guard in a shopping center. Earlier this year, we had new recruits that joined our team. Being one of the more experienced members of the team, I was tasked by my supervisor to train the new recruits while on duty. My first action was to sit down and get to know these individuals on a personal level. I asked about their backgrounds, hobbies, goals, and even their personal concerns about starting a new job. Rather than adopting an authoritative approach to leadership, I expressed empathy by trying to put myself in their shoes to understand their concerns. Throughout their training, I encouraged these individuals to ask as many questions as they could, no matter how basic it was. When there was a simple task that I could easily do myself, I chose to delegate it to the new recruits to present them with an opportunity to expand their skills and improve their confidence. In retrospection, I believe I was able to engage well with these individuals and empower them with the skills and confidence to perform their duties to the highest order, consistent with a transformational leadership approach.
There are a few differences between the two leadership styles that I have identified. While transformational leaders (TL) focus on motivating and helping their followers to develop into leaders themselves, authentic leaders (AL) are more concerned with building trust and legitimacy with their followers to improve performance (Banks et al., 2016). Furthermore, TL is generally required to be inspirational, creative, and charismatic, whereas AL does not necessarily need to possess those qualities to be effective (Banks et al., 2016). With that being said, there is considerable overlap between the two leadership styles. Both TL and AL act as role models for their followers and lead by example. Additionally, both leadership styles strongly emphasize leader self-awareness and fostering a supportive environment for their followers (Celik, Akgemci & Akyazi, 2016). Overall, this assignment has provided me with valuable insight into my own leadership style. Whilst I am comfortable and confident with my approach to leadership, I believe I can emulate some of the strategies of Michelle Obama’s authentic leadership approach in my future practice. Given the importance that the physiotherapy profession places on health behavior change, Michell’s approach to modeling healthy behaviors herself to her followers would be very helpful to me in not only facilitating positive health behavior change but in also fostering trust in the patient-therapist relationship. As the American author John Maxwell once said, ‘A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.
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