MUTUA: Lessons from Obama on appreciating family

Three days in July, the country almost ground to a halt as attempts to spruce up the capital went into top gear to welcome US President Barack Obama. Police were mobilised from far and wide while street families were directed to unspecified accommodations for the duration of his stay.

President Obama’s visit did not disappoint the US wielded its power full force, taking over security arrangements, shutting down major highways for the entire duration of the visit and creating a magical sense of order in and around Nairobi. Even counties far removed were tidied up in the hope that he might either see them from the air or, per chance, drop in for a visit.

However, when he descended from Air Force One, it was clear who had pride of place in the president’s heart – his sister Dr Auma Obama. He acknowledged her with a long embrace and, to the envy of the entire country, she accompanied him into his presidential limousine for a ride into Nairobi.

The reasons for this were clear from Auma’s speech on Sunday at the Kasarani Indoor Arena. She and Obama have come from far – from the time she visited him in the US when they were students, to the times she picked him up at the airport in a car that kept breaking down, to being a bridesmaid at his wedding and the visits they made to Kogelo as he traced his roots.

Auma did not do this because she imagined that one day he would be president of the most powerful nation in the world even when he returned as a US senator some who recently clamoured for a handshake dismissed him as a junior American Senator. Auma saw in him a brother – family.

For many Obama family members this will remain the highlight of their lives for years to come. The gifts in boxes bearing the president’s seal will be mementos they treasure for the rest of their lives. They are now recounting to throngs of attentive listeners exactly what happened at the Villa Rosa Kempinski on the night of July 24 when they hosted the US president for dinner.

President Obama could, quite reasonably, have chosen to fill his diary with important state and business functions. He could have accepted invitations to speak at numerous events to thousands of captivated listeners. Yet he chose to block off a whole evening to spend with family, some of whom he was seeing for the first time.

President Obama did his family proud by acknowledging their existence, taking time to meet with them and for allowing them to bathe in the limelight of his success. For that, if for nothing else, he is a wise son.

While not every leader can enjoy success at the same magnitude, Leaders of Family Business can and should aspire to carry themselves in such a way that they create a constituency of individuals – preferably starting within the family – who are proud of their achievements and who can share in their success. When they prosper, they should lavish their attention on family members not on politicians, trade unionists or student leaders.

Everybody would like to be associated with those who have been successful. While there is the danger of creating a sense of dependency in less fortunate family members, it is important for Leaders of Family Business to allow relatives to identify with them.

It is tempting to want to hog the spotlight when you have enjoyed phenomenal success, especially when such achievements arise from long periods of diligent hardwork performed in obscurity. Concentrated public adoration creates a heady feeling of pride and is often short lived. For that reason, it is best diffused to those around.

It takes a leader of great humility to seek out, acknowledge and identify with less prominent family members whose only claim to fame is their relationship to the leader. Those who do it at the peak of their success reap more benefits in the form of inspiring others and creating a lasting impressing than those who do not.

Success is best celebrated at its peak not on the way down from prominence.

Peter Mutua is a Humphrey Fellow, leadership development consultant and author of the book “The African Prince” available on Amazon Kindle. His email address is