On the afternoon of 19 March, I sat down with 1,000 of Bank of Singapore's top clients and guests to listen to our guest speaker, former United States President Barack Obama.
I have watched many videos of him speaking and I must say that his eloquence is even more impressive in person.
President Obama is not just about style; he also has plenty of substance.
We had only one short hour with him, but it was enough to give me pause for deeper reflection.
President Obama talked about a host of topics – the humanitarian crisis in Syria; extremism and US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; climate change; the rise of China and the US’ role as the “global policeman”.
But what struck me was not about these global issues per se, but the values, beliefs and philosophies he adopted when tackling each of these.
So, here are my top eight takeaways from an afternoon with President Obama.
1. The importance of being real
One of the biggest things that struck me about him was that he had not set out to be a politician. But what he was interested in was promoting change and development in society at a local level.
President Obama drew a clear distinction between politicians who wanted to improve society and those who were in office simply because of the power and prestige that came with it.
For him, it was always important to remember that it was the public who elevated him to the position that he held for eight years. As such, it was also his job to stay in touch with the people he was supposed to serve.
In his own words: "We didn't have a sense that we were up here and everyone else was down there."
Young people, he added, are especially good at sussing you out to see if you genuinely care for their problems or if you are just in government for yourself.
2. Don't shun the tough decisions
President Obama was confronted by plenty of issues on a daily basis in the White House. But he welcomed being thrown difficult scenarios to manage.
After all, as he candidly put it, if something could be easily solved, it would not even require his attention.
The issues that came to his desk were there because nobody else could figure it out or because nobody wanted to take the responsibility for a decision because the outcome was uncertain.
A leader thus needs to be decisive and not be afraid to make decisions based on the available information.
For example, President Obama's decision to send a covert Navy Seal team to kill Osama bin Laden. He recounted how it was a 50/50 call but based on all the information available to him, with likely scenarios of all that could go wrong drawn up, he made a call to go ahead with the mission and was prepared to live with the consequences.
3. Do, don't just hope
Some people may call President Obama a dreamer because he was always so positive and full of hope. He always wanted to instil in people a sense that they can strive for a better life.
And while he is known for his speeches and rallying cries on hope, he emphasises that it was more important to do, rather than just hope.
"We can make the world a better place, not by simply wishing, but by hard work. If you bring a sense of hope with a solid work ethic and with solidarity, then there are very few problems we can’t solve."
4. Be practical
President Obama revealed that a lot of the thinking behind his policies were borne out of practicality rather than idealism.
When he took office in January 2009, the world was still reeling from the global financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
He had to "stabilise the patient and stop the bleeding" before he could begin the recovery process.
He demanded data and facts from his staff and used these to figure out how to solve the problem in a practical way, not ideologically.
He took the same approach when it came to combating extremism
President Obama saw the need to wipe out the Al Qaeda terrorist network, but was practical in his view that it would be counterproductive to alienate the rest of the Muslim world in the process.
So he reached out to Muslim countries, even giving a speech in Cairo in 2009, repeatedly emphasising that America does not see every Muslim as a threat.
Even his worry over climate change – which he sees as a crucial global issue – is borne out of practical considerations.
Confessing to be "no tree-hugger", President Obama said rising sea levels could cause flooding, displacing millions of people. And while that in itself was problematic, such a situation would cause a bigger problem of "creating the environment for conflict".
5. Be realistic, not all problems can be solved
Many leaders think they must solve every problem that comes before them.
But surprisingly, President Obama acknowledged that it is not always possible to do that. All you can do is to make the best decision with what you had available to you at that point in time.
Life would be more fun, he added, if leaders could go through life knowing they can "make things better, but not necessarily make things perfect".
6. Groom the next generation
Still only 56 years of age, President Obama has many good years left in him. And he has identified training the next generation of leaders as his key priority.
His logic behind this really resonated with me.
His thinking is that in order for his own values as well as the issues and policies he cared about to live on beyond his time in the White House, a younger generation would need to be inculcated with the same values as him so that they can carry his policies forward.
And with every passing generation, new solutions can be implemented to continue tackling the same issues.
Which is why he has started the Obama Foundation to train young leaders in the US and all around the world to be more active citizens to push for the change they want to see.
7. Avoid being insular
Many parents go through life worrying for their children and doing all they can to provide them with the best circumstances to thrive.
But President Obama suggests that this may not be enough.
While acknowledging that parents' first obligations are always to their own children, he sees it as necessary for those who are more well-to-do to help bring the rest of society along as well.
"How well our kids do ultimately will depend on how well other kids in the society are doing as well," President Obama said.
"It doesn’t matter how smart your children are, how good your own kids are doing. If they face prejudice from others around them, if they experience bigotry or hatred, at the end of the day, your own kids won’t be doing so well either."
8. Letting go
You have to be tough to be the leader of the world's largest superpower.
But when it comes to his two daughters, President Obama is the total opposite.
His older daughter Malia recently started an undergraduate course in Harvard University and for President Obama, sending her off to school was like having "open heart surgery".
President Obama's advice to any parent going through the same experience? Don't cry in front of them.
He recalled crying privately for two weeks before dropping Malia off at Harvard so that on the day itself, he could pretend that he was ok.
But more importantly, he revealed a very important parenting lesson that he and his wife, Michelle, adopt – to prepare their children so that they do not need them anymore when they grow up and to allow them to "fly" on their own.
There is so much we can learn from Obama, the world leader.
But there is also so much to learn from Obama, the man.Disclaimer applicable to recommendation
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