One of the elements of effective leadership is the ability to rally followers around success. And I have not seen a better example of this than what happened the other day when President Obama announced the news that bin Laden was killed in a fire fight with US forces inside Pakistan. No doubt the intelligence gained from the house itself will be useful. And the killing will likely demoralize bin Laden’s followers. But let’s focus on the political impact for a moment. Before the announcement, Obama did not dominate the US political center stage. He was important, but just one actor there. Now he dominates that stage. It is that simple.
You might say, “well, he was lucky.” And no doubt that there was an element of luck in finding bin Laden. But Obama made three strategic choices that deserve attention. First, he made finding and killing bin Laden (and other al qaeda and taliban leaders) a high priority. That is, he invested resources to get this success. Second, he endorsed decisions, not just to do a drone attack, but to send in people to be sure the job was done. Third, he seized the moment with a dramatic announcement, placing the success in a larger context that produced a tremendous lift for his followers, “justice has been done”. When I refer to Obama’s leadership success, I would include all three elements.
Here is a link to a HuffPo post comparing how Obama and Bush dealt with bin Laden. Bush was caught out when his boasting did not produce success. Obama boasted less and now gets a big boost in credibility with a result. All of his opponents had to stop their criticism for a moment and acknowledge his leadership success — even Rush Limbaugh. Interesting. Keep in mind, these are people who had been for years demonizing Obama for making America weaker and even questioning whether he is American at all. Oops.
Here is a second link to a Huff Po piece that elaborates on the theme of my post. The symbolic effects of this event for Obama as a leader are likely to be far greater than the real effects in the war against terror. Hmmm … BTW this is consistent with Bruce Schneier’s main point in his TED talk. Our perceptions of risk and security are not the same as the reality. Obama is playing “security theater” here — it is important and it will work.
Lastly, I also agree with HuffPo that this success diminishes the effectiveness of a political weapon that republicans have used with great effect since the Vietnam War — that democrats are soft on security issues. George McGovern was probably right about the need for the US to get out of Vietnam, but he framed this as a moral failure — rather than a strategic choice. Ever since then, republicans have played on this theme that democrats are out of touch with strategic realities. Oops. They will have a harder time making that claim stick now.
FOLLOW - This reinforces another leadership lesson about choosing the right battles to fight. Amb. Taylor pointed this out to me years ago when he showed me around the Gettysburg battlefield. When one judges Robert E. Lee as a leader, no matter who else made whatever decisions that led to victory or defeat, it was Lee who chose that place and that moment to fight that battle. Right or wrong, or good or bad, we should recognize that Obama has chosen to fight the war against terrorism by killing off the leadership of terrorist organizations — not just killing peasants in the fields and building roads and schools and democracy. This has been his leadership choice. Why? Because it appears that this is the strategic weak point of those organizations. They have thin and vulnerable leadership.
2d FOLLOW - An aside about the strategic importance of the battle of Gettysburg in the US Civil War. According to Taylor, this was the turning point of the war because it was the first time that the leadership of the northern military forces demonstrated superiority in the field against the south. What had changed? By and large, the southern officer corps — that had dominated — had been thinned out by years of fighting and taking casualties and had fewer quality replacements than the northern army could bring up. The loss of Stonewall Jackson to the south before Gettysburg is just one example.