Mind Over Matter

Obama’s Parting Leadership Lesson

Former President Barack Obama’s final Medal of Freedom award ceremony wasn’t just a surprise; it set a great example for leaders on the value of workplace recognition.

About a week before our new sitting president formally took the oath of office, making history in his own right, now former President Barack Obama was making some of his own — surprising his vice president, Joe Biden, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — making Biden the third U.S. veep to receive the honor, and the first to be given the honor with distinction.

Biden’s own words during the ceremony and video of the event show he was completely caught off guard. He thought he was walking in to toast senior staff, a private farewell or something of the sort, he said later. Instead, standing next to Obama, he was recognized and praised for his many contributions, for his half in a partnership that by many accounts started off rocky. But, next thing you know, Obama has asked a military aide to the stage and, boom, he’s bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on his running mate and partner, whom he called a brother.

Biden’s reaction is probably what made the event social media gold. As soon it becomes undeniably clear what’s about to happen, some gasps can be heard and Biden spins around, his back to the room of friends, family and colleagues, to dab his face with a tissue or handkerchief.

It was quite the emotional moment. I was on the bus riding home, watching the footage hours later, and I was emotional. Biden turns back around, eyes wet, shaking his head unassumingly. There’s more nose rubbing and eye dabbing. Obama continues for a few more moments, and Biden looks up toward the ceiling in that way we all do when we’re trying to stay composed.

It was a touching display, and emotionality aside, it struck at something relatable to many: an appreciation for recognition, and an appreciation for recognizing people whose work often goes unnoticed and overshadowed due to position, title or worse, due to their gender, sexual orientation or skin color.

Appreciation. Who doesn’t like to be appreciated? Who doesn’t like to see others appreciated? It’s prosocial, feeds happiness and promotes self-esteem. And in the workplace, it encourages engagement, strengthens relationships and has an impact on performance.

Strip away the politics that have been layered on the White House, and the Obama-Biden-Medal of Freedom ceremony placed a workplace dynamic employees everywhere could benefit from seeing and experiencing more front-and-center: the simple but powerful act of a leader sincerely recognizing the work of those around him. That message travels the distance.

These acts can be strong enough to make waves and deliver impact, pressing those recognized to keep learning, keep leaning in, keep working hard, keep creating, as though to say: You are not invisible and your contributions have not gone unnoticed. So often we see accolades and attention travel to familiar faces and spaces and often upwards. But what about sideways and down? Bearing in mind that any praise given — to be meaningful — must be specific and sincere, as well as deserved.

I’m not advocating for managers, directors and C-Suite members to haphazardly fasten medals around their employees’ necks or anything of the sort, but ask yourself, are you promoting a culture of gratitude and appreciation with your learning and development strategy? What’s more, are you demonstrating this value within your own department?

Recognition travels a distance. It may end up push-pinned to a wall in a worker’s cubicle, or discussed later over a meal with friends or family. Maybe that recognition is what spurs greater performance improvements. Whatever the case, as the Obama-Biden-Medal of Freedom ceremony showed, while recognition is no magic pill, its impact, when done right, should not be underestimated.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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