How Should a Leader Respond to a Seemingly Insoluble Dilemma? Answer: Very Carefully!

The iconic image of a leader is to be bold and daring, exhibiting an attitude of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” But there are times when leadership calls for a less reactionary and more strategic approach.

It is my long-held belief that the best way to learn how to be an effective leader is to observe the good and bad points of others who are in positions of leadership and by being a student of history. Observing how current leaders function in real-time and scrutinizing how past leaders responded to challenges offers genuine examples of leadership, not just theory.

For instance, stepping back and dissecting how our political leaders have reacted and responded to the horrendous terrorist attacks in France, the specific threat of ISIS and a general concern over other terrorist groups, is a perfect leadership learning laboratory.  

The initial reaction of most wannabe political leaders (in both parties) has been to demonstrate their potential as a leader by demanding swift retribution against the terrorists. But let’s not forget that it is always easier to demand leadership than it is to provide it.

From Donald Trump who has said we should “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, to Jeb Bush who has called for committing “thousands of American troops to ground combat in Syria,” these individuals are attempting to costume themselves as “bold and daring” leaders. They are following the rule that says that is the way leaders should be. (When it comes to Jeb Bush, do you think there is a bit of family rivalry her? Bush 41 had his war; Bush 43 had his war and now Jeb wants his war, too.)

At the same time, President Obama is being universally pilloried as a weak and ineffective leader who is incapable of developing a strategy to destroy ISIS and eliminate the threat of terrorism. There may be truth to these criticisms, but to accept them totally ignores the leadership lessons that can be learned from history. Remember the old saying: If we don’t learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.

This entire situation calls to mind the celebrated definition of “insanity” often credited (although probably incorrectly) to Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.”

True leadership is about doing what has not been done to solve a problem, not repeating the same actions that have failed in the past, hoping to get a different result. There is some indication that President Obama understands the mistakes of the past and does not want to repeat them, even if he has apparently been unable to develop and communicate a new strategy for dealing with terrorism.

It is not like there have not been lessons to learn. Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, America has sent troops into the Middle East region, with the objective of putting down Muslim terrorism. During the last 60 years alone, Eisenhower, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George Bush and Obama have dispatched troops – sometimes hundreds of thousands – to the Middle East, all attempting to pacify the region and thwart terrorism. Not only have these efforts been abject failures, they actually became an accelerant that fanned the flames of conflict.  

The story is always the same: America sends in overwhelming power that tamps down the current “crisis,” only to have the situation return to what it was, when the troops are withdrawn; it’s almost as if they had never been there. The harsh reality is that, unless a different solution to the problem can be found, America could have troops in the Middle East for 1,000 years and when they eventually leave, the same old issues and conflicts will bubble to the surface. That’s because the reality of what we are seeing is a civil war among feuding Islamist groups. It is a civil war between the Shia, Sunni and other sects of Islam that has waged unresolved for over 1,000 years. (Now that American troops have, for the most part, departed Afghanistan, the most violent fighting is between two Muslim groups – ISIS and the Taliban.)   

America has become like the policeman called to a domestic marital fight. So long as the cops are there, the two sides are held apart, but as soon as the cops leave, the fighting resumes. And sometimes one or both parties in the dispute become so upset with outside interference they take their anger out on the cops. Sound familiar?

The leadership lesson here is that when actions have repeatedly failed to resolve a problem – as has been the case in the Middle East – then doubling-down on those same actions, hoping for a different outcome, is not leadership – it is insanity.

At least give Obama credit for recognizing that the same-old-same-old idea of sending legions of troops, costing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars will not resolve the problem. But discredit Obama for vacillating on this position under political pressure and for not offering a different plan.

Have you heard any of our current or wannabe political leaders proposing creative new thinking to combat terrorism? Are they offering an imaginative new approach or are they going all-in on actions that have time and again failed? When a leader has no new ideas for solving a problem, the tendency is to do more of what others have done, even though such efforts had failed again and again. This is a great lesson in non-leadership.

The point to be made here is that if you are in a position of authority and presented with a problem that has bedeviled those before you, don’t get trapped into believing that you can do better doing what others have done and failed. Real leadership is all about taking the time to discover what others have not thought to do and do that. This approach to leadership may not guarantee success, but it is better than doing what has already been done to guarantee failure.

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