Reluctant leaders: Barack Obama

Luxury Academy’s Paul Russell looks at the career of the 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama. 

Of all modern political figures, Barack Obama is the one that is most often cited as being a reluctant leader. Obama’s journey took him from community organiser to civil rights lawyer, from professor to state senator and ultimately, Obama was elected 44th president of the United States on the 4th November 2008.

Unlike some reluctant leaders, Obama’s trajectory towards the presidency and his political ideals suggest he was far from reluctant to take on the role of leader. Yet he is criticised that one of his ‘biggest deficiencies came in his reluctance to lead his own nation’. We look at the emergence of reluctance in leadership.

Obama had an unconventional upbringing. His mother Stanley Ann, known as Ann was married at 18 and divorced at 21 to Obama’s Kenyan father, a father who was absent for his life.

When Ann remarried, Obama gained both a stepfather and a new life in Indonesia, then aged 10, he was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents and attend prep school, Obama has said: “…when I think about the fact that I was separated from her, I suspect it had more of an impact than I know.”

We can see that for Obama, it was not a reluctance to lead but a reluctance to be anything but the leader he set out to be. 

After Hawaii and Indonesia came college for Obama in New York and Los Angeles. In a speech to the University of Chicago, Obama said: “I had gotten out of college filled with idealism and absolutely certain that somehow I was going to change the world. But I had no idea how or where or what I was going to be doing.”

It was only when Obama took on the role of community organiser in Chicago that he began to develop his roots, and thus his purpose.

Whilst Obama admits that his work “with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills” in Chicago achieved good things but was not necessarily transformative for his communities, it is clear that his time on the South Side had a profound effect on Obama. He said it was: “The best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.”

It was after Harvard Law School and a period as a civil rights lawyer, and professor at the University of Chicago, that Obama’s journey into politics began.

This background is useful in forming an understanding of Obama’s motivations and mindset as he approached politics and ultimately leadership of the USA. It also helps us to understand why the reluctance to lead emerged. A New York Times article on Obama states that ‘a defining characteristic of a reluctant leader is that he is self-divided. He feels compelled to do things he’d rather not do’.

In one of his most revealing speeches of his tenure, his farewell address in Chicago on the 10 Jan 2017, Obama shared a little of his experience, saying: “The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody.”

Then later: “Look, politics is a battle of ideas…without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point…then we’re going to keep talking past each other. And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that a part of what so often makes politics dispiriting?”


For Obama, self-government was always his belief. He said the presidency is a ‘relay race’ with each president taking the baton to move the country forward. Similarly, in a speech of 2016: “Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared saviour promising that he alone can restore order…we don’t look to be ruled.”

And when talking about what he would do post presidency: “I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”

For some leaders, reluctance to lead is born of idealism and a sense of what is right is balanced against the realities of the professional landscape; it means compromise, and ultimately it can mean disillusionment. We can see that for Obama, it was not a reluctance to lead but a reluctance to be anything but the leader he set out to be.

Yet these reluctant leaders are the ones that will enact change in the right way with consensus that considers the needs of all. So if you’re an Obama, with strong ideals and ideas, know that the leadership path for you may not be as you imagined, but it will be as it should be.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.



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