In her book Becoming, the former First Lady of the United States reveals herself as a hard worker, a servant of the people, and a daring leader
Though memoirs are a bit outside my mission here, I made an exception for this candid story of how one hard-working little girl matured into the world’s most admired woman.
Becoming, which came out last year, is set to become the bestselling memoir of all time, with more than 10 million copies sold as of March, 2019. It had to be good.
When I cracked it open, I was immediately drawn in. The former First Lady of the United States is an engaging writer with a compelling voice. Despite her position of privilege, Obama never seems to lose sight of her duty to serve, and that devotion to doing the right thing kept me rapt.
“I knew what mattered to me,” she writes of her early days in the White House. “I didn’t want to become some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings. I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting. My first real effort, I decided, would be the garden.”
Her purpose-driven approach is undoubtedly part of her appeal. According to a recent survey by the U.K.-based marketing firm YouGov, Obama is the most admired woman in the world. This year, she pulled ahead of two other purpose-driven public figures — actress Angelina Jolie, and media magnate Oprah — to top the list.
And in the pages of her book, it becomes clear why she’s so revered. There are plenty of reasons to admire this woman. She’s more than just a celebrity; she’s a daring leader.
She works hard
Describing her working-class childhood in the South Side of Chicago, Obama recalls how she worked her way into the best high school, landed a spot at Princeton despite the negative expectations of a guidance counsellor, coped with being one of only a few students of colour, and landed a job with a prestigious Chicago law firm.
Getting her foot in the door felt like a measure of success, but not for long. Even from her early days as a lawyer, Obama was questioning what her work had earned her.
“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path — the my-isn’t-that-impressive path — and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.”
Her reflections are revealing and vulnerable. She examines her own story and finds universal truth in it.
She’s a servant of the people
Throughout her book, Obama asks: Who are we and who do we want to become? Her views of herself are challenged when she meets Barack Obama, another young lawyer in Chicago. In her book, she reveals how attending his early speaking gigs influenced her thinking.
She wanted to be part of something bigger.
“His voice climbed in intensity as he got to the end of his pitch. He wasn’t a preacher, but he was definitely preaching something — a vision. He was making a bid for our investment. The choice, as he saw it, was this: You give up, or you work for change. ‘What’s better for us?’ Barack called to the people gathered in the room. ‘Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?’ “
Revealing her early doubts that Barack should run for public office, Obama admits to moments of overwhelm at her husband’s lofty goals. She didn’t like the scrutiny of the press, the relentless schedule of campaigning, or how his constant travel meant she had to do most of the parenting.
But in the end, Obama gave her blessing and made sacrifices because she believed it would serve the greater good.
“How could I put my own needs, and even those of our girls, in front of the possibility that Barack could be the kind of president who helped make life better for millions of people?”
She’s a daring leader
Over the eight years that she was First Lady, Obama evolved. She charts that change in her book. She describes how, at her first speaking gigs, she attracted negative attention. She came across as severe, even angry. And, can you believe? She lacked confidence.
At a key moment in the presidential campaign, Obama realized she needed help. And she asked for it. I think that willingness to be humble enough to ask for help is a key turning point for someone who dares step into a visible leadership position.
“Until that point, no one from the campaign had bothered to travel with me or show up for my events. I’d never received media training or speech prep. No one, I realized, was going to look out for me unless I pushed for it.”
But, even while learning to speak more effectively, Obama was listening, too. That’s another important leadership skill, and she was flexing it intuitively.
“I was having an impact and beginning to enjoy myself at the same time, feeling more open and optimistic. I was also trying to learn from the Americans I was meeting around the country, holding roundtables designed to focus on work-family balance, an issue in which I had a keen interest.”
Describing a few harrowing moments of her time in the White House, Obama talks about how leadership required her to master the art of difficult conversations.
In some cases, those conversations occurred while the world was watching. At a funeral she attended for a victim of gun violence in the South Side of Chicago, Obama felt the heavy responsibility she carried as the wife of the president. Her comments seems startlingly relevant today:
“I was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and to not disappear on people in need.”
What really impressed me about this book is Obama’s emphasis on duty and responsibility. In my eyes, that distinguishes her as daring leader and someone I want to emulate.
Are you looking for leaders to emulate?
Are you attracted to people who have a moral centre?
Are you preparing to step into a leadership role for the first time?
If so, you should read this book.
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