Wednesday, September 18

A Leadership Lesson From A Place Few Experts Tread

Last August, U.S. President Barack Obama compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to a tiresome schoolboy. But less than 30 days after he made the offhanded comment, it was President Putin who would school President Obama in foreign affairs. Russia is celebrating a diplomatic victory this week.

Somehow, President Obama and his administration allowed the Syria crisis to get away from them. Instead of the United States leading a coalition of countries to bring Syria to justice for using chemical weapons, Russia is being celebrated for stopping the escalation of aggression in the Middle East at the hands of unexceptional Americans. Syria will also surrender its chemical weapons, or so they say, and the world will be a better place.

The turnabout of this narrative was about as masterful as any propaganda since the end of the Cold War. One might even praise the audacity of the move, if not for the considerable consequences.

How recent events have changed the geo-political landscape for now.

Russia temporarily gains world prestige and more influence in the Middle East while protecting its Syrian allies, a country run by a leader who used chemical weapons against their own people. Syria also works lockstep with Iran, smuggling arms to the Hisbollah in Lebanon. And Iran has said all along that the U. S. was behind the uprising, a charge that may not have been initially accurate but has become accurate in the last two years. The arms sent into the conflict are limited, with the U.S. fearing these weapons could all too easily be turned on us as suppliers because some rebels are tied to the same terrorists the U.S. has fought for years. To say Syria is a mess is an understatement.

But most Americans don't even know that the U.S. has already picked a side. It wants to topple the government in Syria, but obviously less than Russia wants to keep Bashar al-Assad.

Those seem to be some of the facts (but not nearly all of them). Just don't mistake them as a call for action or involvement on my part. To me, Syria is another cumulation of events that convinces Americans to choose between two bad choices — act as the global police even when the world doesn't want you to while supporting rebels that may (or may not) include your enemies or do nothing, which is de facto support for a dictator who has long despised you and is happy to operate against your interests.

This is why so many advisors frame U.S. foreign policy in Syria up as a choice between which we like better: the enemy you know or the enemy you do not. It would take a fool to hazard a guess.

Lesson learned: Leadership does not talk big with a little stick. 

Many people seemed enamored by Teddy Roosevelt's foreign policy that is often summed up from his quip to "speak softy and carry a big stick." And yet, few seem to realize that this is akin to negotiating peacefully while simultaneously threatening people with a "big stick." It was coined at a time when the division between American isolationists and internationalists had boiled over, again.

This division is one of the more interesting ones in politics because it does not follow party lines. Although current public perception is that the Republicans are hawks and Democrats are doves, it's not really true. On the contrary, it was progressives who led the country into conflict and war more often than their counterparts who prefer to live and let live. Americans only think the opposite because neoconservatives joined progressives as being internationalists.

Sometimes this internationalist concept works. Sometimes it does not. And this time, it obviously has not worked for President Obama, partly because of his own words and actions for the better part of seven years. He has campaigned under the auspices of being against what the world saw as American imperialism, but has secretly and stealthily supported various programs that reinforce the idea anyway.

The primary difference between this administration and last mostly has to do with the size of the talk and the size of the stick. Bush favored speaking big and carrying a big stick. Obama favors speaking big and carrying a little stick. And, unfortunately, this has made Americans largely unsupportive of any action abroad while making their detractors much more emboldened to push new agendas.

Who cares? Well, that is a subject open for debate. There are those who believe the U.S. can exist without being a major player in the world and there are those who believe we have to lead the world. The thinnest majority of Republicans and Democrats believe we ought to lead because history has proven that trouble will knock on the door of the U.S. whether it goes looking or not.

Foreign policy isn't what this post is about. It's about leadership. 

There are plenty of people who have long criticized the foreign policy of the Obama administration, among other things. The reason it invites criticism is because it lacks coherency, primarily because the original vision that he brought to the presidency runs counter to the way the world works.

President Obama told the American people that retracting the reach of the United States while simultaneously making nice-nice with the world would place us in a potion where our diplomatic prowess alone could influence world affairs. It's not really true, but that was the vision he forwarded to the American people and the world (despite trying to keep a finger on specific interests anyway).

There are dozens of places where that was never going to work. Syria is one of them. Instead, it is one of those places where you have to make the decision, announce the decision, and act on the decision.

The Obama administration didn't do that, mostly, because too much could go wrong. They also didn't want to be responsible if it did. So, in effect, they pushed it off for a few years and then attempted to assemble a middle-of-the-road approach that wouldn't make it look like Obama was rolling back on his posture to be a polite player in the world. When that didn't work, he punted to Congress for a vote while simultaneously withholding any accountability to that vote in case it didn't go his way.

On the domestic front, it all comes across as being considerate, depending largely on how well you like his administration. All the while, everyone forgot that the U.S doesn't exist in a vacuum. Other world leaders saw the vote-and-pony show as indecisiveness at best and weakness at worst. And no matter how you see it, other countries have since seized on the moment.

Contrast this with what Prime Minister David Cameron did. He said the United Kingdom ought to become involved and he made a very strong case to Parliament. When Parliament voted against intervention, he stated it was a mistake but would accept the will of the people. It was a done deal and he didn't look too passive, too pompous or too weak after the outcome.

What's the difference? The difference is that Cameron understands being a leader as opposed to being an expert politician. In this case, a leader transcends their appearance of authority in order to ensure any following is aligned to the organizational goals and not themselves as individuals.

Experts, on the other hand, tend to be different all together. They derive their appearance of authority from their reputation and are not willing to risk it by accepting responsibility. In this case (and possibly many others), President Obama is playing expert in Syria (without the right expertise, perhaps).

The expert fallacy can cost an organization its clarity. 

Right now, almost everyone in the U.S. is looking for experts to solve problems when what we really need are leaders. We see it in politics. We see it in business. But based on the number of people who have added "expert" to their labels (deserved or not), it's safe to say that we have a glut of those instead.

What's the difference? Leaders are those people who figure things out. They are people who have a vision, sometimes asking experts for their opinions on how to make that vision real, and then approve those opinions based on what he or she believes is most likely to make that vision real.

If they'e right, history remembers them with reverence. If they are wrong, not so much. The risk is part of the job. Leaders are held accountable. In government, they don't pin blame elsewhere. In business, they don't need golden parachutes. These are the people who make their own way.

Leaders don't cling to and attempt to manipulate the world they know; they look to shape the world into something no one had ever considered before. (Ergo, a push button phone design expert can't see a flat screen phone as being functional.) And this is why they continually find solutions that experts could never fathom. It's one thing to be studied in what is, and another thing to see what could be.

When it comes to world affairs, history has shown it that the world will praise whomever is steadfast in their vision and conviction to see it through, despite being wrong on some points. So how about you?

Are you are a leader or follower? Do you know your field or are you ready to re-imagine it? Or maybe you want to talk about something else? One of my friends has already suggested we abandon Syria and start focusing on some of the problems we have right here in this country, like homeless workers. What do you think ... about anything?
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