FACING AND OVERCOMING CONTROVERSY - Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne

Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)


Most leaders face controversy at some point in their careers. A slip of the tongue. An unintended slight. A miscommunication. A surrogate misspeaking. These and other circumstances can all give rise to difficult situations. Barack Obama has demonstrated a notable ability to survive controversy and thrive in the aftermath. He illustrates that, often times, how you respond to controversy is more important than the controversy itself. Various controversies have derailed other shining political careers—Gary Hart's affair, Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, public doubts arising after "swiftboat" attacks on John Kerry. Barack Obama has faced his share as well—his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who uttered incendiary comments that undercut Obama's messages of unity; the unsolicited endorsement of Minister Louis Farrakhan; and Obama's own poorly worded remarks about middle Americans clinging to guns and religion. How has Barack Obama successfully used strong communication skills to weather these storms and thrive in their wake, with his reputation largely in tact and his brand scarcely tarnished?

There are valuable lessons to be learned from how Obama addresses and overcomes controversy. He skillfully resets the tone of the conversation as he employs gracious beginnings, focuses on his goals, exudes humility and leverages props. His ability to address controversy head-on, accepting responsibility when appropriate, has helped bring relatively quick resolutions. His skill in standing strong in his beliefs and continuing to deliver tough messages, even in the wake of controversy, has also enabled him to thrive. Let's delve into these communication practices that have aided Obama's ability to face and overcome controversy.


When addressing controversy, it helps to identify clearly your goals. This can guide subsequent choices—how humbly you should act, your ideal body language, the props you might gather around you or the venue where you might offer your apology. When considered with care, these factors can work together to help yield good resolutions. Barack Obama has shown considerable skill in identifying his goals before he addresses controversy in public settings. A good example occurred when he addressed, during a presidential debate with Senator Hillary Clinton, an issue regarding Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Days before the debate, Farrakhan backed Obama's candidacy at a national convention. During the February 26,2008 presidential debate, moderator Tim Russert asked Obama, "Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?"

Aware of the endorsement, Obama tried to defuse any controversy arising from the unsolicited support. He replied:

I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments, I think they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African American who seems to be bringing the country together. I obviously can't censor him. But it is not support that I sought, and we're not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Mr. Farrakhan….

Tim, I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel's. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct and that the United States is in a special relationship with them, as is true with my relationship with the Jewish community.

And the reason that I have such strong support is because they know that not only would I not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form, but also because of the fact that what I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African American community and the Jewish community.

You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans, who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.

However, seizing on the fact that Obama did not use the term "reject" in his repudiation of Farrakhan, Senator Hillary Clinton said:

I just want to add something here, because I faced a similar situation when I ran for the senate in 2000 in New York…. The Independence Party was under the control of people who were anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. And I made it very clear that I did not want their support. I rejected it....I was willing to take that stand….

When Russert asked Clinton, "Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?" she replied, "No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting."

Obama understood that Clinton's comments had put him in a bad spot and that he could potentially emerge from the debate more deeply enveloped in controversy. Obama kept his eyes on his goals of distancing himself from Farrakhan and articulating unwavering support for Israel. He reacted quickly, without further prompting from Russert, saying:

I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word "reject" Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word "denounce," then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.

The audience burst into applause. They recognized that Obama had just doused a potential firestorm. Keeping his eyes on his goals, Obama had spoken the right words in a firm manner and quelled a controversy that could have lingered for weeks and done considerable damage to his campaign. An important lesson: before facing controversy, be clear about your goals; while addressing the difficult situation, align your actions, words, and behavior in ways that are consistent with your goals.


Humility and graciousness have also played a role in Obama's success in weathering controversies. His success teaches many lessons. For example, from his behavior we can see that the way you initially present yourself to people as you face controversy is very important. In some ways, it is like making a first impression all over again. In light of a prevailing controversy, your character or judgment may have been placed in doubt. You need to impress people all over again. First and foremost, don't appear defiant. Additionally, bear in mind that defensiveness normally under-cuts your purpose also. If possible, appear humble and gracious as you begin to address a difficult situation. "To err is to be human"—this is well accepted and people are often willing to forgive, but they are more likely to forgive when you convey a sense of humility or remorse.

To this end, when addressing controversy, body language plays a large role in your success. Just as with first impressions, body language communicates important messages about whether you are sorry, empathetic, defensive, or defiant. Obama has shown the importance of remorsefulness and strength. The ideal body language often involves a fine line between looking too weak with contriteness and looking unapologetic with strength. It would be counterproductive to come into a room with slouched shoulders and your head bowed—that conveys weakness. A strong back—chin up—"look them in the eye" approach is better; that conveys strength. But while appearing strong, other nonverbal language must communicate humility or remorse—the look in your eyes and your tone, for instance. Allow body language and nonverbal communication to set the tone together, taking as much care with these elements as you do when making a "first impression."


Obama has also demonstrated that when addressing controversy, gathering the right props around you can help send a message that echoes your sentiments as effectively as your body language and vocal tone. Obama illustrated this very well when he delivered remarks in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. Large segments of the American public wished to know why Obama had associated himself with such a fiery preacher. Obama delivered his explanation from a lectern flanked on each side by large American flags. The image conveyed patriotism and a deep respect for America. This served as a frame in which Obama offered apologetic statements and affirmed his commitment to uniting people of disparate backgrounds in an effort to attain cherished American goals. The backdrop for his comments sent submessages highly consistent with his words and helped to underscore them. When facing controversy, this should be considered a "best practice:" the backdrop and props around you should reinforce your intent and words.


Taking strides to quickly recast the prevailing dialogue is also a best practice when facing difficult situations. Your aim should be to nip controversy in the bud as much as possible. If the controversy has already grown relatively large, then you should seek to take the bull by its horns.

A good example of when Obama recast the dialogue quickly occurred when he addressed the controversy surrounding his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. Given the divisive comments Wright had uttered over the prior weeks, Obama needed to address accusations that he must secretly support Wright's view, since Obama had attended Wright's church for years. Obama came out strong, drawing on patriotic sentiments as he led into his so-called "race speech." He began by quoting the Declaration of Independence: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Before uttering another word, Obama's choice of this initial quotation rooted his response firmly within American tradition and underscored his commitment to core American values. The words helped to place Obama on moral high ground and changed the tone of the conversation. Obama was able to speak from that moral high ground, rather than from a strictly defensive position about his relationship with Reverend Wright. He continued on, speaking about the intricacies of American race relations and the challenges to equality, and he clarified how deeply he disapproved of Wright's fiery comments.


Another lesson we can glean from Obama's communication practices is that, when addressing controversy, he usually offers an apology early on in his remarks. His apologies are usually very clear and forthright. He admits he's wrong when it's appropriate, and he takes responsibility when it's appropriate. For example, in April 2008 Obama used a poor choice of words as he referred to working-class voters in old and economically ailing Midwest industrial towns. He said that those Americans "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." The comments caused an uproar.

When referring to his inappropriate remarks before an AP luncheon in Washington, DC, on April 14,2008, Obama began with a direct acknowledgment of his error:

Good afternoon. I know I kept a lot of you guys busy this weekend with the comments I made last week. Some of you might even be a little bitter about that.

As I said yesterday, I regret some of the words I chose, partly because the way that these remarks have been interpreted have offended some people and partly because they have served as one more distraction from the critical debate that we must have in this election season.

The forthright acknowledgment was well received. Reporters and the public appeared to concur with the motto, "If you make a mistake, say so."

Restating Ethics and Delivering Tough Messages

Finally, Obama often adheres to a practice of restating his beliefs when he addresses controversies or offers an apology. He does not shy away from, but rather stands strong in his beliefs, and he has proceeded to deliver tough messages even after tenderly addressing his own errors. For example, after addressing the ill-chosen words he had used when speaking about Midwest rural voters, Obama took the opportunity to outline his true beliefs:

I'm a person of deep faith, and my religion has sustained me through a lot in my life. I even gave a speech on faith before I ever started running for president where I said that Democrats, "Make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives." I also represent a state with a large number of hunters and sportsmen, and I understand how important these traditions are to families in Illinois and all across America. And, contrary to what my poor word choices may have implied or my opponents have suggested, I've never believed that these traditions or people's faith has anything to do with how much money they have.

But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make. For the last several decades, people in small towns and cities and rural areas all across this country have seen globalization change the rules of the game on them. When I began my career as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, I saw what happens when the local steel mill shuts its doors and moves overseas. You don't just lose the jobs in the mill. You start losing jobs and businesses throughout the community. The streets are emptier. The schools suffer.

I saw it during my campaign for the senate in Illinois when I'd talk to union guys who had worked at the local Maytag plant for twenty, thirty years before being laid off at fifty-five years old when it picked up and moved to Mexico; and they had no idea what they're going to do without the paycheck or the pension that they counted on. One man didn't even know if he'd be able to afford the liver transplant his son needed now that his health care was gone.

I've heard these stories almost every day during this campaign, whether it was in Iowa or Ohio or Pennsylvania. And the people I've met have also told me that every year, in every election, politicians come to their towns, and they tell them what they want to hear, and they make big promises, and then they go back to Washington when the campaign's over, and nothing changes. There's no plan to address the downside of globalization. We don't do anything about the skyrocketing cost of health care or college or those disappearing pensions. Instead of fighting to replace jobs that aren't coming back, Washington ends up fighting over the latest distraction of the week.

And after years and years and years of this, a lot of people in this country have become cynical about what government can do to improve their lives. They are angry and frustrated with their leaders for not listening to them, for not fighting for them, for not always telling them the truth. And yes, they are bitter about that….

I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose, but the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they've chosen and the bankrupt philosophy they've embraced for the last three decades.

It's a philosophy that says there's no role for government in making the global economy work for working Americas, that we have to just sit back watch those factories close and those jobs disappear, that there's nothing we can do or should do about workers without health care or children in crumbling schools or families who are losing their homes, and so we should just hand out a few tax breaks and wish everyone the best of luck.i[Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in March 2008, after repudiating Reverend Wright's divisive comments and clarifying that he affirmed principles of unity, not division, Obama proceeded to stand strong in his conviction that, at that time, he could not fully disown Reverend Wright. He explained at length, in what has since been called a "seminal" speech on race relations in America:

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough." We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn….

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems—two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health-care crisis, and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth—by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS....

As imperfect as [Reverend Wright] may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions—the good and the bad—of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love….

For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white coworkers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews….

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy—particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. [Emphasis added.]

Obama's clarification above was quite bold. Not all listeners were pleased. On the whole, however, the public and press seemed satisfied to hear a clear denunciation of Wright's remarks and a clarification of how Obama viewed those remarks. Given Obama's forthrightness and the sincerity with which he spoke of wanting to unite Americans, the public and the press seemed largely accepting of Obama's choice to also assert that at the time he could not "disown" Wright any more than he could his own grandmother but that he hoped to help move America beyond its "old racial wounds." Obama's choice to stand strong in his convictions won the respect of many listeners.


Obama has demonstrated tremendous skill in facing and overcoming controversy. We have learned many lessons from the communication practices that have enabled him to weather storms and thrive in their aftermath. Notably, leaders should always remember that how they respond to controversy is as or more important than the controversy itself. They should address controversy head-on and accept responsibility when appropriate. When offering apologies, skilled communicators seek to appear remorseful but strong. Because their character and judgment may have been placed in doubt, skilled communicators realize they must make strong impressions all over again. They avoid the appearance of defiance and defensiveness; humility and graciousness characterize their words. As with first impressions, body language, image and voice have considerable impact on the impressions made. Effective communicators identify their goals before they offer apologies or remarks and keep focused, making sure to articulate the words necessary to achieve their goals. Skilled communicators remember to use props and physical location to reset their image amid controversy, as well as to reinforce their key messages. They offer their apologies early on in their remarks, in a forthright manner. They also avoid appearing as if they are wavering in their commitment to admirable ethics. Instead, when offering their remarks, they communicate their strong ethics again, standing strong in their beliefs.