Osama, Obama, The USA and a parable of leadership


THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

Everything I’ve written here on this blog is encapsulated in the news we heard over this past weekend – and the intent of this post is to draw on the parallels, the parables of what we as leaders can learn from this historic moment.

First – I want to set the context as the key imperatives of Leadership from a followership perspective – a leader MUST establish:

  1. Who is in charge
  2. What are the rules
  3. The rules will be applied fairly and consistently

1) The US, and latterly President Obama took the moral high ground for themselves in declaring a philosophical constant that they were taking a stand against terrorism and the killing of innocents

We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda — an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies

2) The rules were pretty clear – if you declare war on the US and the philosophy and moral position of the US you become the target. al Qaeda and it’s leadership wherever in the World they may be became the target and the defeat of al Qaeda is the declared aim and no expense will be spared to achieve it. That’s a huge and serious commitment, as the President acknowledges

After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

3) The rules can be observed to be consistently and fairly applied – Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, are all removed from action based on their breaking the rules of being committed to the demise of the USA and it’s philosophy. Note that ‘fairly applied’ is relative to the application and contributes to the consistency and is not necessarily and observation of the fairness per se of the rule! Action along this lines against Muammar Gaddafi is fair and consistent against the rules – there is correspondingly less consistent attention being paid to other despots and war mongers which detracts from the overall execution against principal 3) – but this makes my case.

The greatest risks of leadership are also present and demonstrated

  1. no matter, your message will be misunderstood and misrepresented by cynics to manipulate the majority of the “uncommitted”
  2. what you want, always costs more than you are prepared to pay
  3. You can’t ask for patience and someone’s vote

1) no matter what you do, your message will be misunderstood and misrepresented by cynics to manipulate the majority of the “uncommitted”. The War on Terror is pervasively represented as a war on Islam – no matter the lengths that are gone to to counter this – it is still the common perception. Note the hostility and genuine anger to a Mosque at ground zero as evidence that it is close to impossible for many good people to tease apart the two.

2) What you want always costs more than you are prepared to pay – evidenced in the loss of life to date of course, but striking to me is the executive decision to kill bin Laden rather than take him alive. Many would argue that the better Public Relations course of action would be to have taken him alive – but a decision was taken that will sit on that leaders conscience to take a choice of action. You may not see it coming, but I can assure you a relatively tough choice will face you as you execute your vision.

3) It took 10 years, and two US Presidents to see this through – the eventual defeat of al Qaeda may take a generation yet and the overall struggle could be seen in biblical timescales. Doing what is right won’t win as many votes as doing what is right now – never mind.

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how people and leaders embrace corporate change (or not)


change = opportunity; If you are not willing to fail, you won’t get very far.

All very easy to say but so much harder to do. I like to differentiate my blog as practical tools and coaching for leadership, so here are some thoughts on how people deal with change.

In my experience there is a 3 stage process that folks typically go through
1) can I simply ignore this?
2) who won, who lost?
3) what now (for me)?

1) in figuring out if this is something that can safely be ignored, the organization is viewed in hierarchy terms – did we shift the chairs on the deck of the Titanic? Are we addressing something fundamental and acknowledging a revolutionary change in direction? are we dressing up ‘status quo’ as change? At it’s most basic “so what?” needs an authentically compelling answer.

As leaders driving change – answer these questions with integrity, and perhaps revise your change plans accordingly! the default for all our staff is to find a way to safely ignore the change. Just because you sent email, held all-hands etc. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have communicated change – you merely broadcast it.

2) Who won? Who lost? I’ll leave it to qualified analysts to explain the Psychology but I know for sure this is the most vigorously debated around the water cooler and between the thought leaders in your teams. Don’t shy from this fact. Folks make accurate judgements about leaders who pretend a loser won. Thank someone for their hard work, dedication etc if that is true – but anything more is nauseating and will mark you down from potential followers perspective.

Mine for opinion here, you might find an opportunity to correct miss-perceptions or amplify correct assumptions. The bottom line here is that the decisions the organization makes are a clear indication of prevailing culture and intent. For better or worse, pay attention to that fact.

We are often too squeamish to call out the winners – yet, our tribes like to be on the winning side – I mean, who doesn’t? so set up your new leads or strategy guardians for immediate success by identifying their wins and successes in recent work and influence. Help establish their constituency.

3) What now? Critical question, but be prepared to answer “what’s in it for me?” at a micro level. Yes, as a leader you need to be able to talk at a macro level, say “share holder value” for example, but truly great leaders will personalise the message so that every single individual feels like they are on the vital mission of the corporation. Impossible to over invest in the importance of this last piece and it takes a lot of energy from the teams managing the change – but, if you can tell the story of “what’s in it for me?” at the most atomic – your changes will be compelling and sticky.

When you fail to properly tackle any of the above you invite folks to ignore the change you hoped to drive, worse, you reinforce their ability to do so with weak or low authenticity messages.

A more general observation here would be to avoid grand sweeping statements of change if for the audience you are addressing, not much in their day job changes. Again, you must bring rigor to your change in clearly identifying who there is going to be a change for and not get carried away in your own importance by implying that shuffling the pack will create a new suit or extra picture cards etc etc.

Finally, most change is long overdue – so all the above not withstanding, go! start now.

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