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In the second decade of the 21st century a critical attribute for any leader is the ability to effectively manage diversity. No CEO, functional head, team leader, let alone president of a country, can perform to expectations if he or she struggles to embrace diversity.
During the recent protracted and contentious campaign for the US presidency, Republican challenger Mitt Romney often touted his CEO credentials from Bain Capital, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the Massachusetts governorship in the ‘90s.
While the achievements may seem commendable in trying to upstage Barack Obama, he displayed surprising lack of understanding for the issue of diversity that proved critical to the US electorate. He was soundly rejected by voters, including in eight of the nine “swing states”.
In trying to appease his party’s hard-liners, he deluded himself into believing a narrow platform of shrill austerity-driven economics, anti-immigration fear mongering, hawkish foreign policy posturing and aggressive social conservatism would sway voters.
As a result, while he might have reluctantly won over the so-called WORMs (White Older Rich Men) and a smattering of the middle aged and elderly population, the nation largely discarded the presumptive candidate and his party in droves. Among them were the “millennials” (first-time voters), young women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, suburban families, blue collar workers and seniors in key swing states.
They were won over by Obama, who is clearly one of the few US presidents in the last 50 years at ease with the reality of diversity both at home and across the world.
He himself is a product of diversity — Kenyan father, globe-trotting American mother, war veteran grandfather, resilient career-oriented grandmother and a super smart African American wife.
His belief systems have been clearly shaped by his education in Indonesia, Hawaii and Boston, coupled with his formative community work in Chicago. Counting Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr among his heroes, his fabled oratory frequently references the counsel of these great men.
International leaders find him to be easy to relate to and a good listener, someone who is clearly seeking to further US interests while also building bridges.
He has balanced the necessity of rooting out radical jihadists from unstable hotspots like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with his outreach to moderate, growth-oriented nations like Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Although it is too early to gauge how the fledgling democracies across the Middle East will fare, an Obama presidency guarantees less posturing and more behind the scenes nation building.
Contrast his sensitivity to international diversity with Romney, who labeled Russia the number 1 geopolitical foe of the US (is he still reading outdated Robert Ludlum novels?), promised to label China a currency manipulator and almost committed to war with Iran.
In the complex modern world of regional alliances, rising aspirations and unresolved crisis, a more nuanced and collaborative leadership style is required.
Such a style needs to demonstrate respect for diversity of the powerful G20 grouping and the need to reorient the UN to better reflect new emerging powers like Brazil, India, Indonesia and others in core decision-making bodies like the Security Council. It needs to adopt a more balanced solution to the messy Euro zone crisis and help ratchet down tensions that can further stoke violent disputes.
Obama has demonstrated such a style which is also why, barring a few discredited tin pot dictators and theocrats, the world was essentially rooting for his reelection.
Diversity must also be seen in actions and the conviction behind them. While there can be little argument with the need to better control a massive government program like “Obamacare”, critics of universal healthcare should consider the plight of the 30 million Americans hitherto excluded from such coverage.
In a country that has foolishly wasted taxpayer money on bank bailouts, unnecessary wars and pork barrel projects, providing enhanced coverage is a step forward, not backward.
That is also true of Obama’s focus on renewable energy, which must be expanded with greater investment in public transportation systems in the US and abroad.
Strong support for gay rights and passing of the Dream Act that provides children of illegal immigrants a criterion based path to citizenship also showed his willingness to take on diverse challenges.
Diversity today also means that leaders must actively promote talented women. Obama has credited his mother and his grandmother for their great influence on his life. He has appointed women to senior posts in government and the judiciary and developed an effective relationship with one-time foe Hillary Clinton, who has distinguished herself as secretary of state.
It would be wishful thinking to assume that incalcitrant Romney realizes there is no place for the one-dimensional style of leadership, with its limited understanding, narrow appeal, clone-like teams of supporters, intolerant brinkmanship and constant “glass is half empty” negativity.
The contemporary context is much more colorful, complex, problematic and uncertain.
It is what makes it challenging, and the leader who gets it stands a better chance at the helm. Congrats to the US electorate for also getting it right.
The columnist is president director of strategic advisory firm IndonesiaWISE. His management book Professional Luminosity includes a leadership case study highlighting Obama’s standout attributes — communication skills and respect for diversity.