Debora Jesus is a 2020-21 ELN Communications Lead and the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone. Learn more about Debora here.
On January 23rd, the Economic Club of Canada launched an event series on the future of work and the new economy. The forum opened with Future Skills: A Conversation with President Barack Obama. Setting an optimistic tone, the former president of the United States shared his thoughts on several key challenges faced by our generation, including climate change, and the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. While spanning a breadth of topics, Obama provided the audience with a depth of insight and advice, passionately challenging us to see and appreciate a diverse range of perspectives.
For me, the opportunity to see and hear Barack Obama arrived at the same time I started to read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s autobiography. I was moved to read and reflect on the Obamas’ journeys, from their modest childhood lives to their highly influential roles as politicians and public figures. I couldn’t help but feel privileged to be among the 6,000 young leaders learning directly from Obama at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Obama is known for his message of hope — a rare notion, perhaps, for many of us who face an uncertain future and the anxiety that comes with it. It was heart-warming to hear from someone who so powerfully embodies the idea that change is possible. On the topic of leading change, Obama explained what he believes the role of a leader is:
“The person who is formally at the top [has to recognize] that everybody has something to contribute, everybody has wisdom, that your job is to set a course, set a vision. Your job is to then institutionalize a culture of respect and listening, collaboration and teamwork, and if you do that well then you will in fact not just form strong relationships with the people you are working with but also everybody will be respectful, cooperative, and effective with each other.”Barack Obama speaking at Economic Club of Canara event, Janaury 2020.
When it came to climate change, Obama reminded us that it’s not just a matter of using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels or banning single-use plastics. There are many factors at play that prevent communities around the world from fully supporting a climate-friendly agenda. For example, Obama mentioned communities that rely on the production of fossil fuel as a means to support their families. As future leaders, our job is to be aware of these complexities and create solutions that will help our planet but also support the economic and social development of populations around the world.
Noting the rapid pace of change in our economy, Obama spoke about further factors that exacerbate our generation’s high levels of anxiety and deepen the mental health crisis. It’s not easy to deal with change on a daily basis in our workplaces, and personal lives, let alone with regard to the future of our planet. And yet it has become our job to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Whatever stability one may strive for, change remains both a challenge and a reality to embrace.
Hearing from Obama was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It caused me to reflect on many aspects of my leadership journey and also made me hopeful about the future and what we can accomplish if we work together. I left the event feeling inspired by his words and ready to take action.