Observing how others manage or mismanage a crisis is a great way to learn what you should or should not do when you face challenges in your career.
Successful leaders and entrepreneurs will often proudly boast that they learned their business prowess in the “school of hard knocks.” The metaphor suggests that, despite failures, being hit upside the head and running into brick walls, they persevered till they finally found the way to be successful. That may make for an appealing storyline for the next Steve Jobs biopic, but it begs the question: Why take a beating when it is easier to beat the system?
Yet, it is de rigueur for aspiring leaders to be advised that the way to success is to learn what others have done and then, do that. But that’s half a leadership formula. Much more can be learned by observing what those who failed the leadership test did or didn’t do and then, not do that.
That’s not to say hands-on experience isn’t necessary to become a strong and successful leader. It is. But a keen knack of observation is also a great way to cushion those inevitable hard knocks and develop the acumen to make the right decision the first time. After all, it’s a lot easier for a fighter to win the championship if one first learns to deflect the blows that will come their way. And the same is true for those who want to be a champion business leader.
The Lessons of Syria can help Managers Sharpen Their Leadership Skills
The current crisis in Syria – aggravated by the alleged use of poison gas by the Syrian government – is a woeful but useful example of real-life leadership and management put to the test. Regardless of the outcome, the Syrian situation can serve as a learning lesson for those who seek the mantle of leadership, and you don’t even need to get hit upside the head to benefit from it.
It’s no hyperbole to suggest that the Syrian crisis is complicated, with every course of action serving as a trigger for what could be even graver problems. But when it comes to leadership, Syria offers an important lesson: The longer you put off facing a problem, the more complicated it will become, and the fewer options will become available to solve it.
Good leadership starts with an uncomplicated understanding: If you don’t know where you want to go, it is difficult to find the right way to get there. A lack of clarity in defining an overall vision and objective leads to indecision during times of challenge. Surely, there are many signs of weakness in President Obama’s leadership skills, but this lack of clarity is one of the most egregious. His failure to identify, communicate and focus on a broad-based strategic objective for foreign policy is a glaring fault. And for a leader to be successful, this vision must be postulated before a crisis emerges, not during one.
Once a leader has established an inviolate strategic objective, it will be much easier as challenges arise to promptly determine what action – and sometimes just as important – the non-action that should be taken. That’s because these decisions can be measured against the stated objective. The question should not be: What should we do? (The very question at the center of the Syrian debate now.) Rather, the query should be: What action offers the best chance to achieve the objective? It’s simple: If you don’t know what you want to achieve and equally as important, if your followers don’t know what you want to achieve, how can you ever be consistent and clear in your actions? And if you are not consistent and clear, how can you ever be a successful leader?
Because President Obama failed to postulate clear strategic objectives in the Middle East and specifically in Syria, he is now forced to beg for congressional action in Syria on the basis of it being a “moral issue.” That’s not a position of real strength. Counting on support for action that is “morally right” is not a position that has ever had much substantive impact on geopolitical issues.
Other Presidents have Deftly Clarified their Objectives
Abraham Lincoln took office communicating a resolute and clear objective: Preserve the Union. From that point forward, every action – even those that were unconstitutional – was measured and decided based on the question of whether or not it would contribute to achieving that preservation. Lincoln did not free the slaves because it was “morally right;” he did so because he believed it would facilitate preserving the Union.
President Roosevelt made the strategic decision in fighting World War II to win the war in Europe first and then concentrate on the Pacific. Not everyone agreed with the strategy, but it did make the decisions regarding allocation of manpower, resources and actions easier and understandable. Because of Roosevelt’s stated strategic objective, actions became focused, rather than haphazard or diluted.
When Richard Nixon became president his strategic objective was to weaken Communism by driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and China. That wedge was to build a working relationship between the United States and China; something that the vast majority of Americans opposed at the time. Once the strategic objective was established, however, decisions regarding interactions with China became easier because they were measured against a clear objective. By the time Nixon took his first trip to China, it was hailed as a great accomplishment rather than a betrayal. That was possible only because of a well-articulated and focused strategic objective to decouple Russia and China.
The inability of Obama to establish clear strategic goals has led to this slapdash debate that is slathered with conflict, confusion and indecision trying to reach a consensus on what should be done in Syria. It is a classic example of what happens when a leader fails to set up and stick to a benchmark that can serve as a guideline for future decisions.
Important Leadership Lessons to be Learned from the Syrian Crisis
A leader lacking a clear sense of direction (and maybe a lack of confidence in his own ability) will tend to zigzag and careen from decision to decision. The classic complaint of followers is the boss who makes a decision today, only to make a different decision tomorrow. How frustrating is it to have a boss who “lays down the line” as to expectations, direction and performance, only to have the line constantly shift?
President Obama initially indicated that America would stay out of the Syrian government crisis. That was followed by the message that al-Assad “must go.” First, America was not going to take sides; then we took sides, but we weren’t going to provide weapons to the rebels. Then Obama decided to send arms, but only light arms; not the artillery, tanks and other heavy weapons used by the Syrian army. Along comes the crossing of the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and this triggers more vacillation. Obama indicates a willingness to attack, but later, only if Congress and the rest of the world say it’s okay to do so.
What type of leadership signal does this twist and turn style demonstrate? Is it any wonder that Obama receives scant credibility for the promise that there will be “no boots on the ground” in Syria? Followers misled in the past will assume they will be misled in the future.
The lesson here for any would-be leader is that consistency generates credibility; while the lack of it destroys credibility. Without credibility there can be no leadership. The rule is simple: Tell the followers what you are going to do and do it! The funny thing is that leaders do not always have to be right to be followed, but they do have to be consistent. When a leader has the credibility of consistency, followers may not understand why an action is being taken or even agree with it, but they will support the decision. The greatest threat to the erosion of a leader’s authority is to mislead followers as to goals, plans and actions. Followers who have been deceived in the past will soon turn a deaf-ear to promises about the future. And that will certainly limit the future authority of the leader.
And the Moral of the Story …
You don’t have to go to the school of hard-knocks to learn to be an effective and successful leader. Developing a keen sense of observation as to how others manage or mismanage their leadership responsibilities and how they deal with a challenge is a great way to learn what you should or should not do to become an effective leader.
There is no intent here to make light of the Syrian crisis that is indeed complicated and fraught with potentially dangerous and unknown consequences that can be triggered by any action. However, it can serve as a learning lesson for how not to lead. It illustrates the conflict and confusion that can emerge when there is not a clearly postulated specific long term strategic vision that is backed up by a leader exhibiting clarity and consistency in words and actions.