Obama’s Nobel Prize: Lessons for Business

To say that all hell broke loose on Twitter, when the annoucement came in on late morning on October the 9th, is to euphemise. For once, world peace was achieved as a chorus rose in unison wondering why Mr Obama had been given the Nobel Peace prize. Jokes at his expense flew around, without fear of people being labelled “racist”. I confess I contributed too. People wondered how it could be an award for future performance, I called it his “anticipatory No-Bail”. Several Alice In Wonderland references were inevitable but I spare you those in this post.

Mr Obama is the President of the United States, one of the world’s largest democracies and an economy with an eye-watering deficit, fighting two seemingly never-ending wars away from home, facing-off with Iran after tough talk during the elections, and facing tough fights regarding healthcare and other reform at home. He humbly accepted the award and promised to donate the prize money to charity.

So what lessons can a business leader learn from the episode? I see three main things of varying importance depending on one’s business and its place in society.

Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid (or sometimes, just say “no”!).

Awards can be irresistible even to the most limelight-eschewing people. Indeed many industry awards require business leaders (or their PR departments) to nominate themselves/ their companies for the scrutiny of a deciding panel. Notably the deadline for this year’s Nobel peace prize nominations was within two weeks of Mr Obama having been in office.

But whether one accepts an award humbly, like Mr Obama did, or with a wild celebratory party, the main question to consider is if it is well-deserved or simply a case of the business lapping up its own PR.

If it is not well-deserved, customers and other interested parties will soon let the business know. But if PR is the objective, then, provided you did not self-nominate, saying “no” can garner as many headlines as, if not more than, accepting may. Could Mr Obama have said “no”? Possibly. It would be precedent-setting but no more than the prize itself being given for expected performance in the future.

Can you imagine how much more discussion and positive PR about Mr Obama’s humility and general wonderfulness as a human being and a leader might have come if he had said “no”?

Celebrate success, not potential.

Companies hire business leaders for their past successes and their future potential. The salary may be negotiated based on both, but bonuses are contingent on actual results, for delivering on the promise.

Can you imagine giving your “Business Development Star of the Year” award to a new recruit, however senior she may be or however wonderful her prior record in the industry? What possible impact could such a decision have on the morale of others on the team? Does such a decision burnish or tarnish the team’s view of the leaders’ judgement?  From many perspectives, it is wise for business leaders and firms to celebrate success, not just potential. This is one of the reasons why the Nobel Peace prize being given to Mr Obama has generated so much unwelcome buzz.

A funny and poignant mnemonic to remember this golden rule comes from another Nobel Peace prize recipient, Al Gore, who famously said in a speech: “I am Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States of America.

Engage with your publics but do not become the instrument of their appeasement.

The Nobel is unlike any other prize. It is decided upon by a committee nominated by elected representatives of a country. It is generally given out ex-post and not in anticipation. Some scientists wait 3 or 4 decades to gain Nobel recognition. Two things – both political – stand out about this year’s Peace prize.

In the history of the Nobel prize to date, with 800 prizes awarded, only 12 black people have been given the Nobel, of which 8 were for Peace, 3 for literature, 1 for economics and none for Science. Why is this worth a mention? Because much coverage of the prize deems necessary that Mr Obama’s racial heritage be mentioned.  Wangari Maathai, a former Nobel Peace prize recipient, speaking on BBC’s News 24, also said that it was one of the reasons why Mr Obama’s prize was well-deserved. Mr Obama probably does not want to be the poster-boy of the Nobel Committee’s “race-inclusive” decisions. Especially at a time when he is at pains to say that race is not behind his policy measures being opposed at home. But having been given the prize, he is caught in the middle of this politically sensitive issue.

Further, I am not sure if describing the Nobel Peace prize as a “call to action” is very smart. As a visionary statement, it is all warm and fuzzy, I agree. But as a pragmatic step, it sounds like a mere prize is going to be allowed to influence, however subtly, a sovereign state’s foreign policy! The Nobel is unlikely to win him plaudits and friends inside his own country. His current battles and his real publics are at home, not in the wilderness of Europe.

Many business leaders face such dilemmas when engaging with their broader publics. How far should they go before the publics try to influence their decisions or nudge them along inflexible or undesirable strategic trajectories? And how to avoid being exploited to serve the objectives of another firm or organisation?

I am sure others see different lessons in the episode. Feel free to agree, disagree and contribute your thoughts below.

Related reading:

Henrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker on Nobel Surprise;

10 thoughts on “Obama’s Nobel Prize: Lessons for Business

  1. This is going to put a lot of pressure on him. Just like how its going to be for a new recruit, who is always showered upon by ‘kudos’ from his managers. For every kudos/awards you get, you are stressed out not to make any mistakes and always deliver the best results.
    I remember, back in school, the toppers (first and second rank holders) would work so hard to keep their badges at the next term exam.

    @Xylene: Thanks for your note. Indeed you are right. It does put pressure on Obama. However as I mention in the third point in the post, the timing of such ‘international’ pressure could hardly be worse seeing as most of Obama’s battles are at home (economy, health, jobs) and it is Americans who elect him, not Europeans sitting in a remote Northern corner of the world. 🙂


  2. Shefaly,

    Interesting post this. Two observations:

    Myth of invincibility: Corporations/ businessmen/ politician get so assured about their big-ness being a source of protection [global/ heritage/reputation all get in]. They keep ignoring history’s oft repeated lesson that the mighty are usually humbled, in ways they didn’t expect

    Second, an interesting quote @ryanstephens used in ‘Behind Closed Doors’ https://bit.ly/WvcvG:
    ‘Reputation earns you the benefit of doubt, until it doesn’t’

    Feels so apt now!

    Anita Lobo


  3. I hope and wish all that @ Xylene has said proves to be true. There are bigger motivating factors than Nobel prize for Obama to deliver good results.

    @Prerna: Thanks. I had this exact conversation on Twitter with @LiamDempsey and I said to him I do hope the POTUS doesn’t need any “incentives” to deliver his policy goals and results. The Nobel can be – and is being – seen as unnecessary political meddling with the USA’s foreign policy.


  4. Great post. I wish Obama had said no- it didn’t occur to me that doing so would possibly improve his PR, although I think you are probably quite right. I wonder if he felt that going against the wishes of the Nobel committee would be too… reckless? There’s something about this which I find a bit intimidating and scary- not on Obama’s behalf (!) but because it all just smells a bit wrong- was the Nobel committee creating pressure deliberately? Is it racist to give someone an award for being black while making up an excuse about it being for deeds as yet undone? Would Obama have been able to argue any such thing in public (I doubt it)? Accepting gifts with strings attached is generally a very bad idea, the kind of thing one warns one’s children never to do! I wonder where it will all end.


  5. Shefaly,

    Great post, and great timing. I agree with all points, particularly as I think about morale in the workplace. It reminds me a lot of Gen-Y (my generation) bloggers sometimes patting themselves on the back for coming up with some great career-related insights when we all know we have close to zero experience and the real veterans of workplace experience are sitting quietly in the wings.


  6. Bit late here. But I agree with everything you have written Shefaly. If prizes are being given out for future action,then its a shame! As much as I like him, I think this one is an embarrassment.


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