We recently launched The Garrison Institute Forum with a conversation between David Simas, CEO of The Obama Foundation, and Garrison Institute Co-Founder Jonathan F. P. Rose. The Forum sessions aim to expand our understanding around how each of us can play a role in supporting a regenerative, just, and prosperous world. In this inaugural Forum conversation, Simas shared about his upbringing as the son of Portuguese immigrants, what he has learned about leadership over the years, the power of strategic organizing and civic engagement, and more.
Simas entered his first leadership position with a traditional, top-down approach but quickly learned the importance of listening. By listening, and listening first, a leader can build trust, learn from those they seek to serve, and develop empathy. He has realized that true leadership is about becoming a conduit for other people’s power and a facilitator who creates possibilities for people to lead themselves.
“To be a great leader, you need a deep knowing of yourself and a deep knowing of others.”
While serving as the Director of Opinion Research for President Obama’s re-election campaign, Simas happened upon Krista Tippett’s conversation with Jon Kabat-Zinn about mindfulness. His journey with meditation began that day and he soon realized how vital contemplative practices are for leaders, especially those in intense and high-stress positions
Simas continued to grow as a leader while working for the Obama Administration. One key lesson he learned was the importance of leading with kindness and humility, recalling that “I never saw [President Obama] or Mrs. Obama treat anyone in a disrespectful way.” They consistently treated people with dignity, even when the camera was off, which reminded the rest of the team not to get enamored with their job titles but to remember that their purpose is to serve the American people.
Realizing the role leaders plays in driving change, The Obama Foundation has developed a robust leadership program under Simas’ direction. The Foundation is nurturing a network of changemakers and connects them with people and resources who can support them in their leadership journey.
“Leadership, in its best form, is about helping people turn to each other rather than on each other. Leadership cannot just be showing up in a place and presuming you know best. This is where humility, spirituality, and interdependence become primary to leadership. It’s part of the Obama way. It is the intersection between agency and collective action. Yes, you have agency and you have power, but you can never do anything alone.”
While discussing how leadership relates to civic life, Rose shared a framework for understanding politics that Sharon Salzburg and Ethan Nichtern have developed:
Simas noted how disagreement is common in a pluralistic democracy, but the danger comes when we begin to other those we disagree with and turn them into enemies. Once we do that, we can no longer collaborate on the things we do agree on. As he said, “the potency of otherizing and the diminishment of humanity that we have at this moment is as fraught as anything I have seen.”
While this moment presents challenges, Simas, President Obama, and their colleagues at the Obama Foundation are finding hope in how people are turning their anguish into action. As we feel anger and anguish, we have the power to decide what to do with it. Simas cited protesting as one important response that helps raise awareness while creating discomfort for those in power. But he urged that we must protest strategically and engage in other organizing efforts that build towards the better future we imagine. One helpful tool that he referenced is power mapping, which helps organizers identify key stakeholders and their positioning as it relates to an issue.
These productive responses to anger and anguish are part of our responsibility as citizens of a democracy. As Simas said:
“Democracy requires work. We too often view our role as a citizen is merely voting. But that is a consumptive view of what it means to be a citizen or a member of a community, especially in a democracy. There is a fragility to this, and the fragility is exacerbated when we view our place in a democracy as simply being a consumer of it. You have responsibilities beyond voting. We must not cede our responsibility to anyone in elected office. That’s dangerous.”
Simas and Rose also highlighted the role that faith communities can play in civic life. People of faith can model transformative leadership by crossing divides and engaging in difficult but important conversations with those who are on the frontlines of social and political issues. Religions for Peace, a global interfaith peacebuilding coalition, is an example of the possibilities for faith-rooted collective action.
Additionally, the conversation explored the distinction between empathy and compassion. Citing Tania Singer’s research,Simas explained that empathy is feeling what another is feeling and identifying with their pain, whereas compassion is taking action to alleviate that pain. Empathy and compassion have a role to play in our civic life as they can equip us to more effectively engage across lines of differences. Dialoguing across difference is at the heart of democracy, in Simas’ perspective, because it allows us to bridge divides and collaborate to create change. Simas left us with a word of wisdom for engaging in these dialogues:
“The next time you feel triggered about something, rather than condemn or indict, engage. And don’t engage with a presupposition. You may feel that you’re right but leave open the possibility that you’re not.”
Visit the Obama Foundation’s website to learn more.
David Simas is the CEO of the Obama Foundation. He joined President Obama’s administration in 2009 as a Deputy Assistant to the President, and in 2012, he served as Director of Opinion Research for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Following the reelection, Simas returned to the White House as Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Simas holds a B.A. in political science from Stonehill College and a J.D. from Boston College Law School.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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