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Unencumbered

Hilary Moriarty says minimalism is key to looking the part as a leader

Posted by Hannah Oakman | June 03, 2016 | People, policy, politics

There is probably a very long list of things you need to look like a leader, and even more if you want to be a great leader. But I have a new, magic necessity to suggest: nothing.

Nothing at all. If you really want to look like a leader, carry nothing at all. Walk the walk empty-handed, arms at your side, relaxed, confident, unencumbered.

My evidence? I present Barack Obama, observed in a recent TV programme demonstrating the power of a completely unencumbered look. Never mind the world-class decisions he was making minute by minute, and explaining as he went, never mind the fact that his leading is on a mega-level several notches above that required by most ordinary mortals, never mind that of course he has an army beneath him, civilian as well as military, all contributing to the leadership he displays. The point is that he displays a vision of leadership that would surely make us think, ‘I want to look like that.’  And if he can do it while worrying about the world, surely I can do it when I only have school, staff, pupils and parents to manage?’ I know these things can be tricky, but let’s face it, they are not the Middle East.

In the programme, Obama on the move was empty-handed. When he addressed the press, an aide dashed to the podium seconds before him, placed on its bare surface a slip of paper no bigger than a postcard, and fled. The President swept in, grasped the sides of the podium, and spoke. Presumably he glanced down at the notes delivered by the aide, but that wasn’t obvious. And he just looked as if he had swanned in – I love that verb – knowing exactly what he was going to say, and free to say it without having to cart it about with him. Don’t we all want to be that man?

US President, Barack Obama

I am reminded of assemblies, which are the occasions when most headteachers are most likely to be visible to their schools. In some schools, assemblies are very formal – pupils file in, staff arrive like custodians, the head makes an entrance, takes up position on the stage and the service begins. How often does the head arrive with a hymn book in hand and a sheaf of notes for what his or her address? How elegant is that?  

I have to admit, I like a podium. I like holding on to its sides, and leaning over the top of it, the speaker’s equivalent of a toddler’s bunny to hold on to in moments of stress, no matter how much you actually love the limelight and an attentive audience. But watch a few TED talks and you’ll see no podium. No getting between speaker and audience – talk to me, say the listeners, and listen to me, say the speakers, and let us get rid of anything that might stand between us. I talk, you listen and we are as one. It reminds me of old-style teaching, where those listening expect to be told something worth hearing and remembering, and not just to churn it out for an examiner in due course. ‘Didactic’ – such a censorious word now, yet look how much progress the world made when that’s exactly what teaching was, helping students to stand on the shoulders of their teachers, take their wisdom and go further. It sometimes appears in modern classrooms that we expect children to work things out for themselves, preferably in groups, eventually coming up with stuff we might think, ‘Yeah, I could have told you that at the beginning. . .’

Meanwhile, I come across another Obama picture, this time ‘heading for Air Force One’ and accompanied by his 17 year-old daughter Malia. I know Obama won’t be carrying a boarding pass – don’t be silly – but I had an air-punching ‘Aha!’ moment when I spotted that Malia had a backpack.  Of course she did! What 17 year-old could board a plane without one?  

But her dad? Nothing to impede his way, slow him up, clutter the picture or, presumably, his day and his life. Now that’s what I call a good picture. You would trust this man with the world.

Unencumbered-ness also affects how he walks, which is not really the word for Obama movement. But if it is, and you need an adjective, that would be ‘jaunty’. He positively bounces up the steps of Air Force One, light as air, even looking as if he’s wearing a light suit, whatever the weather. Malia, close as she is to him, is one of us, backpack slung from a shoulder, no doubt with mild anxiety about what gadget she may have forgotten. Other politicians, who are one of him, appear to plod by contrast.  Even if they are also unencumbered by the various objects we gather about ourselves, there is not one of them that moves like Obama, virtually skipping on the tarmac.

I like a podium. I like holding on to its sides and leaning over the top of it, the speaker's equivalent of a toddler's bunny

He also, of course, does serious walking, notably in footage of his approach to the Oval Office, down that colonnaded walkway with fresh air on his left and the weight of the White House and all it signifies on his right. He moves athletically but more slowly, thoughtfully. The walk says, ‘This is the most important job in the world, I am aware of that. I can do this.’  But whatever awaits him, he approaches empty-handed. ‘Here I am,’ he seems to say, ‘at the disposal of my nation. I will serve.’  There is humility as well as pride, grace under (presumably) extreme pressure.

And occasionally very plain speaking, as in recent statements about gun law. The lack of ‘stuff’ around him, in his hands, under his arm, being referred to, gives him air in which to breathe and a freedom and capacity to raise his head, look the audience in the eye and say what seem to us to be the rational thoughts of a man you can trust. He’s not hiding anything, there is nothing to hide behind, nothing to hide with.

All of this is probably deeply ironic, given the army of people who will carry the weight of the world for him, and the second army who will prepare all the papers he does not carry and teach him the lines he must deliver as if actually free-speaking, sometimes in very dire straits. I was both horrified and deeply disappointed the first time I realised that politicians even had speech writers – ‘What? You mean they don’t write their own?!  But if he does not write it, how can we trust him – it’s not his words, why should they be true?’ I am sorry, but I really was that naïve. Or trusting. It’s a fine call.

I know that Obama has the same support structure as every other world leader – much the way every head has an army of deputies and assistants. But still, wonderfully, he bounces and jaunts freely and energetically, in a profoundly cluttered and leaden world, the picture of a competent, confident leader. Unencumbered.

Now, about the problem of the handbag. . .

Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

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