Obama’s “Yes We Can” Leadership Elements– Self-Efficacy and Community Organization

Psychologist Albert Bandura, the father of Social Learning Theory in 1977, defined self-efficacy as our belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations. The concept of self-efficacy emphasizes the role of observational learning through modeling and social experience in the development of personality. So how did Obama develop his high self-efficacy? 

Certainly his mother, an anthropologist had a major impact on his development and so did his absent father who Obama saw as a powerful although absent figure in his life, Obama in his outstanding memoir Dreams from My Father 1995, shares his story of being raised by a white mother and grandparents in Hawaii while his father lived in Kenya. At the time of Obama’s birth in 1961, his parents were enrolled at the University of Hawaii.   His father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a native of Kenya, had left the states and return to Kenya when Obama was only two years old. Obama’s mother, Shirley Dunham, of Wichita, Kansas stayed in Hawaii for a while until she married Obama’s stepfather and then moved the family to Jakarta, Indonesia. After ten years in Indonesia, Obama went back to Hawaii to live with his white grandparents and it was there through their support for education and learning that his identity and character would be forged into a strong personality. Certainly, from these role models President Obama gained a good dose of self-efficacy.

Another important figure in the development of Obama’s self-efficacy was Saul Aliniski and his community organizers. Known as the ‘father of modern American radicalism,’ Saul D. Alinsky (1909-1972) developed strategies and tactics that take the angry, unfocused frustration of grassroots groups and transform it into effective community activism. In addition, Obama was taught this strong pragmatic philosophy while studying community organizing at The Industrial Areas Foundation, an Alinski training institute. Alinski whose 100th birthday would have been yesterday, was the author of the manual on community organizing Rules for Radicals.  He encouraged  his students in the spirit of legitimate methods to help the poor and disenfranchised get what they wanted by being part of the system not attacking it from outside.  In Alinsky’s mind, the American power structure needed to be changed from the “world as it is” into the “world as it should be.” 

According to Bandura’s theory, people with high self-efficacy – that is, those who believe they can perform well – are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided.

For example, when Obama went  to the Republican caucuses to explain and dialogue with his adversaries about the economic recovery plan he not only showed respect for the oppositions point of view he showed high self-efficacy. His sense of self-efficacy plays a major role in his ability to reach out to others and listen and show respect for their ideas as he confronts problems and establishes priorities, goals, tasks, and challenges of a successful leader. Obama seems to have the ability to learn from his or the campaign team’s mistakes or failures, like the loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada primaries, he is noted as saying “this experience was good for the campaign. We can learn from the loss as a campaign and I can be a better candidate.” So the big question –Will Obama’s high self-efficacy change the bitter atmosphere in Washington politics?


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