Careful study of President Obama's inauguration address reveals his masterly approach to inspiring people to pursue change rather than remaining comfortably in the status quo. He clearly understands how people struggle to put old ways behind them and to face a new and less certain future. His speech is packed with ideas and phrases designed to win people's hearts and minds and to prepare them for the road ahead. He does this using five specific strategies; reducing uncertainty, increasing people's sense of purpose, giving people a sense control over their destiny, ensuring people connect strongly with each other and their country and increasing people's feelings of success.
Any leader tasked with instigating major change in their organisation will vastly increase their chances of success by following the example of President Obama.
How did President Obama increase certainty?
By reminding people that great hardships have been overcome in the past (and so can be overcome once again). For instance, in the following phrases:
“Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man…” and [quoting George Washington] “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
Through honesty about the situation and a personal certainty and hope for the future:
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met… for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
How did President Obama increase people's sense of purpose?
By creating dissatisfaction with the past:
“Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many…”
By appealing to shared values and setting out an inspiring vision of the future:
“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
How did President Obama increase people's sense of control?
By reminding people it is they who are responsible for America's greatness and will be again in the future:
“Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction…At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”
How did President Obama increase people's sense of connection?
He reminded them of a shared history:
“That noble idea, passed on from generation to generation…Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine…earlier generations faced down fascism and communism.”
He talked about what we are now doing together:
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
He described what we will do together in the immediate future:
“We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”
And appealed to a common sense of duty:
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
How does he increase people's feelings of success?
He reminded them of their strength:
“We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.”
He reminded them of recent and current successes (including a oblique reference to 9/11):
“It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the fire-fighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
He reminded them that they have the tools to do the job:
“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”
“Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America!”
Any organisation that wants to bring about real and lasting improvement must change the mood and behaviour of their people. They could do worse than follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama.