The Day President Obama Asked to Meet Me

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet POTUS provided a giant reminder

When President Obama made his last official visit to the UK, John was on the guest list at the Town Hall meeting in London. Read about John’s interaction with the President, and how he was reminded of the need for leaders to see themselves as giants.

On Saturday, 23rd April I went to see the President of the United States speak at a town hall event in central London. 

I had been invited as through my NBA Ambassadorship I have had the opportunity to get to know the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Matthew Barzun.  His residence is not far away – but eminently more salubrious – than mine.

On the day, I arrived to a huge queue snaking through the closed streets around the Royal Horticultural Halls.  I felt for the residents who might as well have settled in for a lazy morning at home, rather than attempt to negotiate the maze of congested and closed off streets.

I walked towards the end of the queue and set in for a long wait to go through security. I made small talk with those around me and we all spoke about our excitement to hear what the President would say in his prepared remarks, but most of all, to hear how he would handle what we felt sure would be forthright questioning from the half and half crowd of school kids from around London and adults lucky enough to know the right person to get themselves a golden ticket.

I was only at the end of the queue for a few minutes when an embassy aide walked up to me and asked me if I was “Mr. Amaechi”. I said yes and she ushered me out of the queue and towards security. No matter how good it feels to avoid queuing, it always feels mortifying to avoid it. It was a sunny morning and my sunglasses helped me hide my shame.

I was whisked inside where I was met by another aide, who pulled me aside and said ‘You need to sit here…’ He pointed to the very side of the room and I was a little upset – I had hoped to be up front and centre so I could at least say I had been within touching distance. Before I had chance to wallow in my self-pity (and privilege) at my poor placement, the aide went on.

“You need to sit here… because the President has asked to meet you.

After President Obama finishes his remarks I will come and grab you, please follow me as quickly as possible.”

My mind was swimming, pride threatened to overwhelm me, but I smiled and sat and tried to contain my excitement.  I sat down and felt like I was someone special, until I realised I was sat next to Reggie Love, the President’s former ‘body man’, and someone who spent every day for three years no further than a room away from Barack Obama.

Life has a funny way of foisting perspective on you.  We spoke briefly, he was amazingly informed, talking about education policy in the UK and ‘Brexit’ and  hugely humble even as those sat around us realised who he was and fawned on him lovingly.

He looked me in the eyes and told me I was a role-model…

The town Hall itself was fantastic. I watched and lamented that I didn’t have the impact he had on the assembled students.  When he looked in their direction, they strained to be seen listening to him and when he finished his prepared remarks and began to ask for questions, almost every arm in the room shot up.  I smiled in pride again, but this time for the supposed “feral, urban youth” of Britain who hesitated for not even a second when presented with the opportunity to challenge the most powerful man in the world.

Perhaps the most telling answer I might quote, was when President Obama was asked about a somewhat obscure foreign policy issue related to Somalia and he said “…you know, I could manufacture an answer and pretend I know the answer, but sometimes, leadership is about saying when you don’t know.”  He went on to say he would find out more and then have a view, but he didn’t want to seek without knowing the facts. A refreshing perspective in today’s politics.

As the President left the stage, I was ushered to a side room and into a corner with Annie Lennox, Stanley Tucci and Benedict Cumberbatch.  I looked around and smiled, they chatted amongst themselves – they seem acquainted – but I’ve never been that good at meeting new people.

President Obama arrived and I just watched, Tucci, then Cumberbatch then Lennox as they went forward and shook his hand.  I kicked myself for not doing as Annie Lennox had done and brought a book for him to sign.

Then it was my turn. I stepped forward and extended my hand…and the President gave me a hug.   I hugged him back, careful not to crush him in my zealousness. He asked me if I still played, I patted my belly and said no. He smiled wide when I told him I was a psychologist now and talked about how important it was to find a way to contribute after a notable career – I couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about him or me.

He looked me in the eyes and told me I was a role-model for millions across the globe, that he was immensely proud that the world had made huge leaps in the area of inclusion and I was one of the reasons.

I am normally eloquent. This day I was not. I wish I had a mulligan because there was so much I wanted to say, but my mind was awash.  Our meeting was coming to an end, it was time for my official photograph with my arm around him and his around me, I wanted to say something profound, something memorable… but all I could think was that the President had asked to meet me.

It’s been a few weeks now since I met President Obama and I am replaying in embarrassment my lack of alacrity at our meeting, but above all , meeting the President has made me realise that I need to do more to be able to have the influence I saw him have on that crowd of people from all walks of life – students to business leaders and celebrities.  Not all of these people agreed with every policy position but Obama appears to have been able to find a way with wit, insight and a type of political authenticity, to personally appeal to a broad swath of people beyond partisan lines.

I talk to leaders about how they must consider themselves giants whose whispers are shouts, for whom the impact of every action is magnified and who, by merely standing, can cast a great shadow.  I think perhaps the greatest compliment I can make of my meeting with President Obama is that while I am a man who considers myself a giant; I stood in the shadow of a greater giant and only felt brighter – and taller – for the experience.

Would that every interaction with a leader had such an impact on their people.

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  • Susan Salzbrenner

    What an amazing experience, thanks for sharing with us. I am sure it will have a lasting motivational effect to live up to Potus’ expectation of being a role model and leader for inclusion. Lots of work to do, John. Let’s get to it 🙂

  • Alan Henderson

    That must have been quite something else; I love your humility in it all; it only inspires us to be better!

  • Darin Simmer

    How awesome! I am so proud of you and the effect you have made.

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