Michelle Obama’s epic speech Tuesday in New Hampshire should be required viewing for every leader. Not because of its political content. Not for her strongly worded endorsement of Hillary Clinton or her scathing takedown of the Democratic nominee’s “opponent” — the First Lady refused to even say GOP nominee Donald Trump’s name — that has already been called a “defining moment in the presidential campaign.”
Rather, it was for the absolute master class she offered in that elusive quality of leadership: “authenticity.” It is among the most jargon-laden, vague concepts touted by leadership consultants and coaches, the subject of countless books and training seminars promising yet another elixir to effective speech-making or good leadership.
But on Thursday, Obama provided a stark reminder that this nebulous quality comes not from a book. It comes from the gut. With inclusive and personal stories, emotionally strong yet vulnerable tone and body language, and a passionate appeal rooted in her own experiences, Obama embodied the widely praised but rarely replicated feat of seeming “real” that escapes so many leaders.
Much has been said about the First Lady’s skill at this. In her extraordinary July Democratic National Convention speech, Obama made moving, personal remarks, delivered in emotional terms, about what it meant for her to be a black woman raising two daughters in the White House. She previewed her aspirational, moral high-road approach to taking on Trump in her commencement speech at the City University of New York in June.
Yet on Thursday, that ability, combined with the urgency of the election’s final sprint, resulted in one of the most powerful speeches yet delivered — by any candidate or any surrogate — in this campaign. She opened with a relatable appeal, still appearing to be awed somewhat by where she is, drawing the audience in by talking to them like friends. “Let me just say, hello everyone!” Obama said in an almost girlish voice, and then “that’s very sweet of you, I love you, too!” No hint of a speechwriter or a script.
Though she didn’t share specifics around stories of her own (she doesn’t have to — we’re all too familiar with how her body has again and again been the subject of derision), she made clear how much she can personally relate to the experiences other women have — much as her husband did when, following the Trayvon Martin shooting, he talked about the racism he’s experienced himself. “It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.”
By casting her own experience as similar to others’, she made herself relatable and accessible, even if she in fact has experienced worse slights and body shaming than many women ever do. Here was the First Lady of the United States, among the most popular and influential women in America today, saying she too identifies with the feelings of women on the street. “Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his.”
But it’s not just the words she used, it’s the way she used them, channeling emotion that was both intense and vulnerable at the same time. Obama’s voice cracked when she spoke, seemingly shaken by raw feelings just under the surface. She slipped up, having to restart or repeat words several times, making her seem less rehearsed and appear that genuine emotion is just getting ahead of what her mouth could say. Her body language was at times literally heartfelt — placing an outstretched hand over her heart as she made a key point. “It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It, it, it hurts,” she said Thursday, touching her chest.
Perhaps most of all, she both spoke about and showcased in her delivery the passion she feels about the subject. Using highly personal, unguarded language about how she’s been affected by the language Trump used in the video released last week, she said “it has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.” And then: “I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect.”