- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

As President Obama settles into the Oval Office amid a symphony of optimism and hope, it is a good time to take stock of how he achieved this historic milestone and what that means for how he should conduct himself in office. The expectations are perilously high - and the potential pitfalls daunting.

Mr. Obama’s appeal among rising generations is undeniable, and part of this appeal has been his authenticity. That has been one of his most lucrative political assets, in part because authenticity - or rather the quest for it - is one of the defining features of this moment in our history. Think back to the campaign when then-candidates Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain - along with Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul - dueled for the authenticity mantle.

Rising generations (especially Xers and Millennials) are known for seeking authenticity when it comes to their political candidates, relationships, hobbies, neighborhoods, communities and even consumer experiences - from their coffee selections to whether products are produced by “socially responsible” businesses. It applies to their work, too. According to a recent study in the United Kingdom, nearly nine out of 10 young people are seeking careers that will add purpose to their lives as well as fulfill their potential at work.

In Fast Company magazine, Bill Breen wrote, “Hunger for the authentic is all around us … consumers are gravitating toward brands that they sense are true and genuine,” from organic foods and BMW’s Mini to iPods, Whole Foods and Google. To this, we easily could add more: Clif Bar, Chipotle, Honest Tea, Zappos, eBay, Twitter.

In “The New Marketing Manifesto,” John Grant writes, “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.” In his best-selling book “Authentic Leadership,” former Medtronic CEO Bill George wrote, “We need authentic leaders. … Leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values.”

Here, Mr. Obama faces daunting challenges. Think about the global wave of hope inspired by his “Yes we can, yes we will” campaign juxtaposed against vexing economic, military and policy challenges, a plodding political system built for compromise, and Beltway egos that always entertain and confound. David Axelrod take note: Overexposure is one of the best-known authenticity killers.

So what should Mr. Obama do? In our book “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives,” we write about “authentic integrity.” Most people think of integrity as adherence to a moral code, but it also entails integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres.

According to author Kevin Cashman, “Integrity goes far beyond telling the truth. Integrity means total congruence between who we are and what we do.” It may sound simple, but it is quite difficult for leaders - especially political leaders - to achieve because of all the countervailing pressures they encounter.

The other side of that coin is authenticity, which is derived from the Greek word “authentikos,” meaning “original.” For Mr. Obama, this means staying grounded - striving to maintain normalcy in his family life and seeking sage counsel from his friends, advisers and faith, not to mention his own intuition. It means holding fast to his principles and understanding how he is uniquely positioned to address the promise and perils of the presidency at this moment in time. Soon he will be tested. Yes he can campaign and inspire, but will he lead with both head and heart with an artful blend of boldness and humility?

Surely we have stomached too many scandals and disappointments in recent years - in government, the church, business, sports and beyond - to withstand the audacity of hope dashed by yet another politician seduced by the siren song of ego or the machinations of political calculation.

Abraham Lincoln - another Illinois politician-turned-president who also hailed from humble roots (and one whom Mr. Obama likes to channel these days) - once observed, “Every man is born an original, but sadly, most men die copies.” In a revealing moment, he also confessed, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

Those words can’t be found on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, but Mr. Obama nonetheless would be wise to heed them as he shapes his presidency.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. They can be reached at [email protected] preneurs.com.


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