ATD 2018 Day One: The Keynote

ATD 2018 logo and text in colour on a white and blue background

What a privilege to be at ATD 2018 today.

We arrived early, knowing there would be queues for the opening speaker. But we hadn’t anticipated what we found. Maybe the fact that there was a 20 minute queue at Starbucks at 6am should have provided a clue.

We reached the Conference Centre before 6:30 a.m. to find a queue over a mile long, snaking all around the enormous conference complex and back again. If you are wondering why, well the opening guest speaker was ….. President Barack Obama.

If the queues were the first surprise, the absence of visible security was the next. No secret service operatives in Raybans talking to their sleeves, and no bag checks at the door.

With 15,000 delegates packed in, the atmosphere was more rock and roll than political legend, and the star arrived to a huge prolonged standing ovation. His first smiling but heartfelt words were, “Yes, and I miss you too!"

“When I saw the queue outside I thought you must be expecting Michelle” he quipped, setting the tone for a relaxed and engaging conversation-style presentation. What he had to say was a mix of homespun truths and thoughtful reflections on leadership, learning, values and personal growth.

While President Obama was generally careful to avoid what he referred to as “editorializing”, the implicit comparison with the present incumbent of the White House were never far from the surface. He was particularly eloquent on the importance of strong personal values of honesty, kindness, hard work, persistence, humour, and of focusing on what you want to achieve not what you want to be.

Here is a brief extract on values that perhaps came nearest to political commentary: “Truth matters. This is a table (laughter). And I mean this in all seriousness, it is important for us to make sure regardless of our political proclivities, that the values underlying this great country don’t get eroded because situationally, in this particular circumstance it is convenient for us to bend our values to get what we want.” I wonder who he had in mind.

Despite everything, and he particularly referenced the challenges of climate change and of the unprecedented social upheavals brought by disruptive technologies, Obama remains a cautious optimist. He reminded us of longer term trends, that, on average, the world is wealthier, healthier, more peaceful, more educated than ever before, and that 50 years ago this session would have been impossible. He quoted JFK saying that “any problem that man created, man can solve” - mainly, he added, by asking women. That got quite a cheer from at least half the audience.

I suppose, on reflection, there was little that the President said that was new or startlingly profound, but it was nonetheless an enormous privilege and a moving experience to be in the presence of this great man.

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