Leadership Case Study: Michelle Obama


We examined The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama as our leadership model. We decided to examine her as a leader because upon the initial observation that many Americans would consider her role as being “The First Lady”, her prime achievement. However, we wanted to give light to what Fairhurst would consider a
“social constructionist” view of leadership in of one the largest and most sought after organizations. “The White House”.


Michelle Obama is a leader in her own right. Her educational background includes graduating cum laude from Princeton University followed by earning her JD degree from Harvard Law. During her professional career she worked in corporate law, community outreach, as an associate dean of student services and as the Chicago city administrator.  She accomplished these professional highlights before becoming First Lady of the United States.  When we look at her past achievements and her currently successful initiatives we would describe her as a leader blazing her own trail. However, many times when she is addressed it is not because of these achievements; but because of what her role is secondary to her husband. Bryman, et al. described such stereotypes as “prejudices against female leaders, because of the incompatibility of how leaders are identified”(108).

Theory Inflected Analysis of the Case

Discursive Turn

Social constructionist theory states that we as a society construct a shared understanding and assumption of what leadership entails. We create our understanding of what someone’s role entails. The glass ceiling is still very much intact and as a result, society still has divided roles, both societal and domestic, down gender lines.

How does society view the First Lady’s role?  The popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia states that the First Lady is “first and foremost, the hostess of the White House.” As Wikipedia is written collectively by those who use it, this definition gives us insight as to the general public’s view of the role.  Even considering all the causes our first ladies have championed since the 19th Century, those causes are often reduced to or at least tied in with more domestic, “feminine” functions, as described on the George W Bush Library webpage:  “Often these causes will be interwoven into the ceremonial functions of the White House, such as themed Christmas decorations under Mrs. Bush, or a ‘Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move’ Easter Egg Roll under Mrs. Obama.” The site goes on to mention “the American public has also been fascinated with the First Ladies as trend setters in style, fashion, entertaining, and home design.” Such descriptions are fueling the perceived duties of The First Lady. This illustrates the more discursive turn in social constructionist theory, which denotes “that language does not simply reflect states of mind but actually is responsible for constructing attitudes, impressions, and behavior that ultimately constitute leadership practices and identities.”

The constitution does not address the First Lady or her role on the White House but the language and tone used to describe her and her role has helped shape that role, for good or ill.  A successful First Lady, according to the National First Ladies’ Library, is “measured by their own enjoyment of the role” and shows an interest “in legislation as they are entertaining.” While this description is seemingly innocuous the language and tone illustrate the gendered nature of the position. Her enjoyment of the role is the equivalent of asking her to smile and she can be interested in legislation as long as she is a good hostess. Educational accomplishments can be useful as long as you can set a proper tea service.

Transformational/Relational Leadership

A simple search on Michelle Obama and Leadership will reveal dozens of articles proclaiming her impressive leadership capabilities. A recent article in Forbes stated, “First Lady Michelle Obama has been actively in the news for two things. The first would be her fashion sense. But the second and most defining are her leadership skills and community activism.” Again, we see a nod to her fashion sense, which is, admittedly enviable but we also see a very favorable nod to her leadership and activism. The article goes on to talk about her respect for self and others, how relatable she is, her effective communication skills, her honesty, and her ability to inspire others. These qualities are in line with both the transformational and relational leadership models, which female leaders “prefer to adopt” (Baxter, 431).  Transformational leadership revolves around a leader who inspires others and “enhances the motivation, morale and performance of followers.” (www.langston.edu) Relational leadership “that focuses on the idea that leadership effectiveness has to do with the ability of the leader to create positive relationships within the organization.” (leadershiptoday.org) This model of leadership was illustrated beautifully when a photographer captured a sincere, friendly hug between The First Lady and the former President, George W Bush, at the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In these politically divisive times, she was able to put aside differences and foster a seemingly positive relationship with the other side.

Student Analysis of the Outcome

If “the modern, professional, career-oriented woman is a legitimate social identity — even a norm,” (Billing, 300) why is this not the case for the First Lady? Our last three First Ladies all have graduate degrees.  Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley College and received her JD from Yale. Laura Bush also has a post-graduate education: an MLS degree from the University of Texas at Austin. We have discussed Michelle Obama’s education and career pre-White House. Why are we still relegating these women to live in the shadows of their “Great Men?” Because, we have created the leadership we see as most appropriate for our First Lady.  Michelle Obama is accomplished, intelligent, and has all of the earmarks of a great leader, yet the implied role and responsibilities of the First Lady seem to set the women’s movement back a few decades.

Social constructionist theory states that we as a society construct a shared understanding and assumption of what leadership entails. We create our understanding of what someone’s role entails. The glass ceiling is still very much intact and as a result, society still has divided roles, both societal and domestic, down gender lines. Why would it be any different at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?  Knowing this, one has to wonder: should Hillary be our first female president, will Bill really be in charge of Christmas decorations and Easter Egg hunts? Doubtful. Will it take a female president to alter our idea of what a woman can and should do in the White House? We know that there are many issues that require strength and sound judgement, but also a diplomacy that builds and maintains strong alliances.  Seeing a possible paradigm shift in 2017, with the possibility of the once most powerful individuals during his term as president, will he become the individual that will perhaps advise and play a role that would require a social constructionist view during this possible shift?


Work Cited

“Articles about First Ladies’ Role.” National First Ladies’ Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

Baxter, Judith. “Who Wants to Be the Leader? The Linguistic Construction of Emerging Leadership in Differently Gendered Teams.” International Journal of Business Communication 52.4 (2014): 427-51. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

Billing, Yvonne Due. “Are Women in Management Victims of the Phantom of the Male Norm?” Gender, Work & Organization 18.3 (2011): 298-317. Web.

Huhan, Heather R. “5 Leadership Takeaways From Michelle Obama.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

Korte, Gregory. “First Lady Michelle Obama’s Hug Shows ‘genuine Affection’ for George W. Bush.” USA Today. Gannett, 2016. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

“What Is Relational Leadership? (Leadership Questions and Answers).” Leadership Today.org. Leadership Resource Center, n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

“The First Lady and Her Role.” George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

“Transformational Leadership.” http://www.langston.edu. Langston University, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.


Carli L. and Eagly. A.The Sage Handbook of Leadership:”Gender and Leadership”(103-117)


Forbes: 5 Leadership Takeaways From Michelle Obama


wedu.org:  Women Leaders That We Like: Michelle Obama


shethepeople.tv: Five Leadership Qualities of the First Lady


readtolead.org: November Leader of the Month


Harvard Business Review: Michelle Obama: A Charismatic Leader?


Black Enterprise: Five Leadership Lessons from Michelle Obama


ShareAmerica.gov Michelle Obama Encourages Girls to Be Leaders


Leaders in Heels: 5 Things That Make Michelle Obama an Inspiring Leader in Heels




A Comparison of the Visual Framing of Michelle Obama as Created by Journalists and The White House.


First Lady Crafts Role in White House

Ontology and Social Construction


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s