Former US President Barack Obama considers himself a diehard optimist but he couldn’t help but vent some frustrations over the current political climate when he spoke to a crowd of 11,000 on Wednesday at a tech conference put on by Qualtrics, a software company in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Obama never mentioned the Trump Administration by name but he occasionally expressed his disapproval through quips and jokes.
“I like the rule of law, democracy, competency and facts. Those things arent partisan but they also dont happen automatically,” Obama warned in a rare moment of seriousness. “Democracy is a garden that has to be tended.”
When asked by his interviewer, Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, about leadership during difficult times, Obama threw another gentle jab: “Im old fashioned and believe in values like facts and reason and logic,” which got a big cheer from the crowd.
He said there are several keys to good leadership and, doubling down on his theme of competency, he said one of the big ones was hiring.
When running a large and complicated organization, leaders need to surround themselves with people who are more knowledgeable than themselves, he said.
On top of that, good leaders then have to actually listen to those experts. “Have confidence that you can understand what they are saying and if not, you’ll keep on asking questions until you do,” he said.
Sometimes the people who rise to become the big boss “start feeling, ‘I have every answer.’ When in fact, most of the time you have not,” he warned.
An oil drilling rig owned by British Petroleum and built by Halliburton exploded in such a way, and in such deep water, that engineers from those companies could not easily fix it. Oil flowed for 87 days, dumping massive amounts of oilinto the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama described it on Wednesday as “the largest environmental crisis to happen in our lifetimes, in terms of an oil spill.”
“Fortunately I had recruited as my Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who was a Nobel Prize winning physicist,” he said.
As the weeks went by, his daughters started asking him about it, concerned about the people and wildlife being harmed. They asked him, “Daddy when are you going to shut down the hole?” he said and then laughed. “Now I”m feeling bad because my daughters think I’m not handling this well.”
About three weeks into the crises Chu came in with a sketch on a napkin. “It looked like a little hat. There were some numbers next to it.” They sent it off to BP who fleshed out the idea and it worked. The engineers capped the oil spill with a literal cap.
“My role as the leader in the organization was not to come up with the little hat because I wouldn’t have thought of that. I would have thought, ‘that doesn’t look complicated enough to stop this hole in the ground,'” he joked.
“My job was to have Steven Chu there, who has a Nobel Prize in physics and that’s who should be in charge of the Department of Energy.”
The audience gave Obama another big round of applause in response. (The current Secretary of Energy is former Texas governor Rick Perry.)
The upside for Obama as a leader who hired such experts is that it “gave me a lot of confidence. I had confidence in the talent I had around me.”
He said it’s not just about someone’s resume either. Motivations also play a role.
“I was good at making sure the people working with me were there for the right reasons, that there was a core integrity to what they were doing,” he said. He wanted people who believed in the mission of using government to support citizens and solve problems.
Everyone from his volunteers to staff members to campaign donors were clear on that, he said. “This is not about us, you or me, it’s not about you getting an appointment or a contract or a position, it’s about the mission,” he said. “So by the time we got to the White House, we had weeded out the mercenaries.”
That set up the culture and “it also means you don’t have big scandals and indictments. That’s a bonus,” he joked to another round of applause. Although it was only a passing reference, he was clearing referring to the growing list of people involved in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to be indicted, charged or to have pleaded guilty of crimes.