Foto: Colin Huijser

This lucky devil got to interview Obama

Colin Huijser21 February 2019

Ben Tiggelaar obtained his PhD at the faculty of Business Administration and Economics at VU University Amsterdam, where he studied behavioural change in organisations. Now, this behavioural scientist is known as the management guru in the Netherlands, specialising in leadership and change. He was also the lucky devil who got to interview former president Barack Obama at the Forward Thinking Leadership seminar.

Interviewing a person as great as Obama must have been very exciting... "True, but I do think that being nervous is also a sign of poor preparation. Good preparation is the key to success. That’s why I spent ages reading and listening to Obama’s speeches, but I was also fortunate enough to have a team of researchers supporting me. Colleagues of mine in the NRC newsroom, for instance, gave me some good tips and helped out with the questions. My daughters also contributed by collecting all sorts of videos about Obama. This much preparation may seem like overkill, but, in fact, I’d say it’s absolutely essential. You don’t want to black out the moment you set foot onto the stage, and if you’re well prepared, the atmosphere during these interviews can be very relaxed. At times, we were so relaxed that Obama even gave me a glimpse into his private life in the White House."

Why do you think Obama is such as special leader? "What really impressed me is that Obama chose to become a community organiser in Chicago after leaving Columbia, earning a mere $20,000 a year. For a Columbia graduate, that’s peanuts, but he made the deliberate decision to do something socially relevant, despite the fact that it would not help his career much. He wasn’t interested in glory and riches, but in helping society. From the very moment he entered into politics, he has been consistent in this approach: he has always told a clear story, steered clear from scandals and cares passionately about his ideals." 

What kind of leader is the current president of the US? "For me, moral awareness is of great importance for leaders, and for political leaders in particular. You expect them to adhere to certain norms & values, such as the conviction that all people are equal. These values are enshrined in the American Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a reason, after all. Many world leaders, however, seem to be sorely lacking. In my opinion, people who insult people from other ethnic backgrounds, joke about disabled people or make derogatory comments about women don’t deserve to be leaders That’s what I think about Trump."

Is there anything that Obama can teach leadership experts like yourself? "Obama can be very convincing. If you really believe something and dedicate yourself to that cause, spreading your message without any hesitation, you’ll always manage to impress people. I asked him how he became such an eloquent speaker, and he told me that it’s not a question of charisma or rhetorical tricks, as many may think. He believes that the most important thing for a speaker is to carefully consider your own opinion first, determining what it is that you believe in. Only when you manage to put that into words, will people notice that you truly believe in the message you’re conveying. When I returned home after the interview, I wondered whether I actually did that. Since then, I’ve also tried to do the same in my own job. A valuable lesson, taught to me by none other than Obama himself."