Girish Joshi

A Promised Land: Review

13 min read

The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

13 Reasons Why  I Love Barack Obama?

1. He has a great sense of humour.

McRaven explained that he was looking at the body as we spoke, and that in his judgement it was definitely bin Laden; the CIA’s facial recognition software would soon indicate the same. To further confirm, McRaven had a six-foot-two member of his team lie next to the body to compare his height to bin Laden’s purported six-foot-four frame.
    “Seriously, Bill?” I teased. “All that planning and you couldn’t bring a tape measure?”

2. He listened to his mother.

“You know, Barry,” she said, “there are people in the world who only think about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want. They put other people down to make themselves feel important. “Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.
    “So,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Which kind of person do you want to be?”

3. He (also) listened to his grandmother.

“The thing about getting old, Bar,” Toot had told me, “is that you’re the same person inside.” I remember her eyes studying me through her thick bifocals, as if to make sure I was paying attention. “You’re trapped in this doggone contraption that starts falling apart. But it’s still you. You understand?”
    “Sometimes,” she told me, “you just do what needs to be done.”

4. He was once broken and broke.

I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always banked on, had been used upon a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.
    In other words, I had become the very thing that, as a younger man, I had warned myself against. I had become a politician—and not a very good one at that.

5. But he tried to sell Magic Beans to Michelle.

“If you lose, we’ll be deeper in the hole,” she said. “And what happens if you win? How are we supposed to maintain two households, in Washington and Chicago, when we can barely keep up with one?”
    “In other words,” she said, “you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you’re telling me. You have some magic beans, and you’re going to plant them, and overnight a huge beanstalk is going to grow high into the sky, and you’ll climb up the beanstalk, kill the giant who lives in the clouds, and then bring home a goose that lays golden eggs. Is that it?”
    “Something like that,” I said.

6. And his Magic Beans really had magic.

She looked at me and shook her head, incredulous. “I can’t believe you actually pulled this whole thing off. The campaign. The book. All of it.”
    I nodded and kissed her forehead. “Magic beans, baby. Magic beans.”

7. He is a good listener.

Over time, though, I focused more on listening. And the more I listened, the more people opened up. They’d tell me about how it felt to be laid off after a lifetime of work, or what it was like to have your home foreclosed upon or to have to sell the family farm. They’d tell me about not being able to afford health insurance, and how sometimes they broke the pills their doctors prescribed in half, hoping to make their medicine last longer. They spoke of young people moving away because there were no good jobs in their town, or others having to drop out of college just short of graduation because they couldn’t cover the tuition.
    “Most people, wherever they’re from, whatever they look like, are looking for the same thing. They’re not trying to get filthy rich. They don’t expect someone else to do what they can do for themselves. But they do expect that if they’re willing to work, they should be able to find a job that supports a family. They expect that they shouldn’t go bankrupt just because they get sick. They expect that their kids should be able to get a good education, one that prepares them for this new economy, and they should be able to afford college if they’ve put in the effort. They want to be safe, from criminals or terrorists. And they figure that after a lifetime of work, they should be able to retire with dignity and respect.”

8. He is always willing to learn.

“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. Take whatever question they give you, give ‘em a quick line to make it seem like you answered it…and then talk about what you want to talk about.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.

The most effective debate answers, it seemed, were designed not to illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy, or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side.

Then again, a president wasn’t a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot, hired to carry out some narrow, specialised task. Mobilising public opinion, shaping working coalitions—that was the job. Whether I liked it or not, people were moved by emotions, not facts.

9. He understands that life and presidency are a game of chances.

What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster; a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended); a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse.

10. He is brave enough to accept the past.

At times, we bent global institutions or ignored them altogether; we meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results; our actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights we professed to embody.

11. He’s a philosopher

“Check it out, boss,” Reggie said, pointing at the wall. There, carved in the smooth, porous stone, was the dark image of a man’s face. Not the profile typical of hieroglyphics but a straight-on head shot. A long, oval face. Prominent ears sticking straight out like handles. A cartoon of me, somehow forged in antiquity.
“Must be a relative,” Marvin said.
We all had a laugh then, and the two of them wandered off to join the camel riders. Our guide couldn’t tell me just who it was that the image depicted, or even whether it dated back to the time of the Pyramids. But I stood at the wall for an extra beat, trying to imagine the life behind that etching. Had he been a member of the royal court? A slave? A foreman? Maybe just a bored vandal, camped out at night centuries after the wall had been built, inspired by the stars and his own loneliness to sketch his own likeness. I tried to imagine the worries and strivings that might have consumed him and the nature of the world he’d occupied, likely full of its own struggles and palace intrigues, conquests and catastrophes, events that probably at the time felt no less pressing than those I’d face as soon as I got back to Washington. All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust.
Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would soon be forgotten.
Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.

12. He knows whatever he’ll do might not be enough.

Michelle and I had just finished getting dressed when Marvin knocked on the door and told us to look out our forth-story window. Pulling back the shades, we saw that several thousand people had gathered in the early dusk, filling the narrow street below. Each person held aloft a single lit candle—the city’s traditional way to express its appreciation for that year’s peace prize winner. It was a magical sight, as if a pool of stars had descended from the sky; and as Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but thing about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else. I saw an expression of the spirit of millions of people around the world: the U.S. soldier manning a post in Kandahar, the mother in Iran teaching her daughter to read, the Russian pro-democracy activist mustering his courage for an upcoming demonstration—all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that whatever the risks and hardships, they had a role to play.

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.
Try anyway.

13. He tells me being president means taking big risks and sometimes kissing your wife when you do succeed.

“We have him,” he said. “It seems he was picked up by some friendly Libyans, and he’s going to be fine.”
    I wanted to kiss Tom at that moment, but I kissed Michelle instead.
    When someone asks me to describe what it feels like to be the president of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe—in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night. It wasn’t simply that each decision I made was essentially a high-stakes wager; it was the fact that unlike in poker, where a player expects and can afford to lose a few big hands even on the way to a winning night, a single mishap could cost a life, and overwhelm—both in the political press and in my own heart—whatever broader objective I might have achieved.

I had finished reading A Promised Land about two weeks ago. Usually, as soon as I finish the book, I sit to write the review and then move on to the next reading project. But this time I wanted to sit with what I had read, for as long as I could, slowly chewing the things I had earlier gulped in an attempt to reach the finish line. Last month, I had read something on the blog Farnam Street that stayed with me: “Skim a lot of books. Read a few. And immediately re-read the good ones twice.” A Promised Land was a good book. I had to read it again. And not just re-read it, but also re-think it. I wanted to sit on my laptop, typing out the words Obama so effortlessly had said in his memoir perhaps in an attempt of not forgetting them, or perhaps to get them ingrained in my mind. I was little more than twelve years when Barack Obama became the president of the United States of America and he remained to be the president until I was little more than twenty years old. This was also the time when my grandfather was elected as a member of the legislative assembly in my state for the first time. I grew old watching these two lawmakers through the comforts of my home, one at the dining table and the other on the wall opposite speaking to me through the hanging television. Now that I think of it, risking sounding a little presumptuous, I wanted to understand what goes into the making of a good leader? To me, both of them represent the same kind of politics, the only kind of politics I understood, the politics of unity and hope. Read A Promised Land to learn what it is like to be a president or a leader.

While reading A Promised Land (to be honest, also A Higher Loyalty), I ended up compiling qualities of good leaders. I hope it helps you identify good leadership around you. It’s not an exhaustive list, help me expand the list.

  • A sense of humour
  • Having a balance of humility and confidence
  • Integrity and decency
  • Transparency
  • An awareness that we all seek meaning in work.
  • Knowing that doing is far more important than saying
  • They never yell. They know guilt and affection are far more powerful than fear.
  • A good listener. It’s hard because it requires us to be vulnerable, to risk our superior position.
  • Is willing to learn
  • They strive to be better than themselves
  • They are just; they don’t bend laws or those who are there to protect it.
  • They know history. They understand history.
  • They have healthy self-doubt. Decency to ask, “what am I missing?”
  • Listens to the experts
  • Good decision-makers
  • Thinks long term
  • They draw different viewpoints into a conversation, disregarding the hierarchy in meetings to allow people to speak their minds up.
  • Tells the team to think; does not tell them what to think
  • Willingness to accept mistakes and flaws.
  • Credits to the team; Blames to the self.

I’ve also compiled my highlights, summary, and notes of the book here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *