Obama's congeniality is worth emulating

By Zhang Guoqing
0 CommentsPrintE-mail China.org.cn, August 20, 2009
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In an important development last week, the Obama administration publicly dropped the previous administration's "war on terror" rhetoric. This step indicates that the United States is adjusting its global strategy and rectifying the deviant foreign policy of the Bush era. It also shows good will on the part of the U.S. as it strives to draw the International community, including the Muslim world, into a common effort to solve the global security crisis.

Although Mr. Obama's approval rating seems to be in secular decline at home, we should differentiate between the domestic and foreign spheres and evaluate his performance on each separately. Mr. Obama did a very good job diplomatically during the period of his "political honeymoon". This came as a surprise for those who did not think highly of Mr. Obama's diplomatic ability.

There are two major reasons for this. First of all, Mr. Obama listens to his think tanks and subordinates, who are mostly experienced diplomats. Their suggestions have helped him steer diplomatic policy in a new direction. Second, Mr. Obama is a congenial person. He is modest, easy-going, and good at listening to others. His pleasant personality helps him forge relationships with overseas leaders.

Mr. Obama's congenial character played a positive role in winning people over during last year's presidential election. After his presidential debate with John McCain, 65 percent of people polled agreed Mr. Obama was congenial and charismatic, compared with 28 percent who though the same about Mr. McCain.

According to psychologists, congeniality is to some extent inborn, but largely depends on socialization. Its basis lies in identification with, and respect for, others. A congenial character is expressed as heartfelt understanding of others, appreciation of others' positions, and patient and honest interaction.

In Mr. Obama's case, his congenial personality stems mainly from his own efforts at communicating with people. After he graduated from Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama chose to return to Chicago to serve a local poor black community rather than entering a highly-paid job. This experience undoubtedly improved his communications skills and polished his congenial character.

Looking back at American history, it is easy to see that many of the country's outstanding presidents were very congenial people; for example Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Thomas Jefferson, one of the Republic's Founding Fathers was perhaps the most outstanding example.

Jefferson's roles as one of the founders of the United States and helping to draft the Declaration of Independence are well known. But he also made important contributions to American ideas about education and leadership. In short, he had a profound influence on American society.

As scholars such as Michael Gelb point out, one of Mr. Jefferson's major political contributions was fostering an open, power-sharing atmosphere that encouraged harmony and inspired loyalty. When he was President, Mr. Jefferson kept the door to his office open. Officials could walk in, without being invited, to talk and debate with the President. Jefferson encouraged his team to exchange ideas openly and honestly. During discussions, he encouraged everyone to speak up, while gently guiding them along the right track.

Some American historians say Jefferson's cabinet meetings were like a gathering of friends; the only rule was there should be candid discussion, integrity and mutual respect. His democratic leadership style earned him the loyalty and respect of his subordinates.

Jefferson put his stamp on academic life in America. As "the father of University of Virginia," he treated students as a loving father would. Unlike those who advocated strict control and punishment, he though it unreasonable to use fear to motivate students. He had no time for humiliation, corporal punishment or oppression.

Jefferson said professors and students should strive for a relationship like that between father and son. In order to draw professors and students closer together in their academic and daily lives, he came up with an innovative design for the university campus – which he called an "Academical Village". The "village" layout helps create a friendly, almost family atmosphere in which professors and students live as close neighbors.

At Virginia, professors were not just teachers, but also friends with their students. They were able to offer the same subtle and gentle guidance as friends can. This style of relationship not only improved American educational standards, but also helped create an inspiring social environment that encouraged politicians to be congenial.

From the legacy of Mr. Jefferson to Mr. Obama's accomplishments, these inspiring stories tell us that congeniality is not just a concern for leaders but something that parents and teachers should acquire. More importantly, it is also the basis of a harmonious society.

This blog was first published in Chinese on 2:15 p.m., August 15 and translated by Pang Li


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