Tag Archives: Barack Obama


Despite promises to the contrary, America is creeping back into the internecine sectarian conflict in Iraq.

In the immortal words of Chester A. Riley, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” (Except for regular readers like Marvis Anderson, you probably are too young to remember this iconic line often evoked by William Bendix on the 1950’s television show Life of Riley) Nevertheless, the sentiment almost certainly best expresses the feelings of most when it comes to America’s active military reengagement in Iraq.

One has to ask: Will we never learn from the mistakes of the past to prevent mistakes in the present? It’s not the purpose of this piece to explore or take sides in the debate over past, present or future involvement in Iraq, but our history in Iraq can serve as a superb leadership “teaching lesson.” For those who seek to be strong, effective leaders, knowing the history and observing the actions – good or bad – of those in position of leadership during our years in Iraq, is a great way to learn lessons that can help anyone become a successful leader.

History should teach us

Any objective analysis of the history of America’s involvement in Iraq since the launch of the “shock and awe” aerial attack in March, 2003, right up to last Friday’s bombing of Islamic militant positions in northern Iraq will show that virtually every fundamental principle of good leadership has been violated — again and again.

Starting with President Bush’s flawed justification for involvement in Iraq – based on nonexistent or manufactured intelligence – right up to President Obama’s rationalization for the current bombing – to protect American diplomats – virtually every decision was reactive rather than proactive. They all lacked the must-have components of successful leadership.

Fortuitously, anyone who recognizes, understands and seeks to learn from these mistakes can’t help but be a better leader. So what are we to learn from the muddled leadership that plagued the incursion in Iraq resulting in the loss of thousands of American lives (not to mention several hundred thousand Iraqis killed) and trillions of dollars – American dollars – wasted?

The first – and maybe most important – lesson to learn is that:

Any objective, large or small, must be realistic, transparent and achievable.

When a goal fails to meet any of these prerequisites – let alone all three of them – the chances of success become unrealistic. The result will be confusion and dissent among followers, causing efforts to be wasted. When President Bush said the objective of the American invasion of Iraq was to “build a free democratic society in Iraq,” he was setting an unrealistic goal; ignoring centuries of sectarian and religious conflict between the sects and tribes that populated the area of Iraq. Ironically, President Obama committed exactly the same error by setting the same objectives in Afghanistan.

Another basic lesson to learn is that as a leader, never promise more than you can deliver and always deliver more than you promise. When MissionaccomplishedObama “ended the Iraq war” and withdrew all troops, he made the promise that “America’s involvement in the war was over” and Iraq would have to rise or fall on its own; America would not return to the war. Now stuck with that pledge, he has to search for excuses to go back on his promise. “We are not getting back into the conflict,” says Obama, “but just protecting our people who are there.” (If Obama’s real objective is to protect the American diplomats in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, why not just evacuate them?) Making a promise that can’t be or isn’t delivered on by the leader only serves to weaken the leader.

One could go on and on with specific examples of how those who propagated and managed the war in Iraq violated fundamental principles of leadership, but it would be better to explore the core tenets of effective leadership that were so utterly nonexistent from our political leaders in the Iraq war.

Successful leaders always exhibit the four Cs: They are clear, constant, consistent and concise in what they say, seek and do. It sounds so simple, but these four Cs are essential and powerful elements of true leadership. In short, leaders not only “talk the talk,” they “walk the walk.” (The Cs displayed by those leaders running the Iraq war were: Contradictory, inconsistent, complicated and confusing!)

Effective leaders paint a vision of the objective that is clear, focused and easy to understand. And while the objectives may (should) be difficult and challenging, they must be seen as realistically possible. Ask yourself: How clear, focused, understandable and realistic was the vision painted to justify America’s war in Iraq? From effective leaders once a vision has been offered and accepted, there are no contradictions; there are no broken promises; there are no half-baked or shifting agendas.

Consistency must be a hallmark of leadership. Consistency comes down to something very simple: When communicating with followers say what you mean and mean what you say. Measure that type of consistency against what we heard from leaders during the Iraq war. A leader must constantly remind and reinforce the objective in a consistent way. Being consistent does not mean being inflexible in adjusting to shifting conditions, but it means not easily changing direction away from the ultimate objective.

Leaders understand that the best way to keep things moving toward the objective is to always be consciously concise in their communications and direction. The best way to accomplish this is to focus on keeping things simple. The truth is that anyone – especially political leaders and bureaucrats – can take a simple issue and make it complicated, but leadership can be defined as taking a complicated issue and making it simple and understandable. Something we didn’t see much of in the Iraq war.

There is no doubt that always being clear, constant, consistent and concise is not easy. The challenges any leader faces are dynamic, challenging and often changing, but what often differentiates successful leaders from failed ones is the effort to use the four Cs of leadership as their guidelines for their words and action.

And the Moral of the Story …

An effective and ultimately successful leader employs techniques that are – without fail – clear, constant, consistent and concise. Without uniform application of these principles leadership becomes rudderless and ineffective. Inconsistency from a leader breeds confusion, frustration and loss of respect from followers.

The answer for any leader is to consistently say what you mean and mean what you say. Speak the truth concisely and avoid the urge to confuse and complicate. And, above all establish a clear vision of the objective and constantly keep that vision before those charged with making it happen. One final thought: Effective leaders never promise more than they can deliver and always deliver more than they promise.

The truth is that if this style of leadership had been applied to Iraq, our actions would have been significantly different and there would be no discussion of going back in to make the same leadership mistakes again. Particularly the kind open-ended military mission which Obama admits, ” . . . will be a long-term project.”

Avoiding the Rigor Mortis of Leadership

It is a sure sign of dead leadership when the leader becomes inflexible, unresponsive to input, stuck in rigid positions and is exacting as to how things are to be done.

Do you remember the scene in Washington, D. C. on a cold January day in 2009, when Barack Obama stepped spritely to the podium to address a mass of 1,800,000 cheering, emotional and expectant citizens to take the oath as the first African-American president of the United States? At that moment Obama rose to the very pinnacle of his power as a leader.

Since then, like air leaking from a wounded hot-air balloon, Obama’s power to soar has dissipated and his ability to lead effectively has Barack Obamaplummeted to all-time lows. Now, after less than six years, President Obama’s leadership power is approaching full rigor mortis and the only question is whether he has enough power to get anything done.

Even though they are on a much grander scale, the challenges to preserve presidential power are no different than those every leader, on any level, must deal with. It is unlikely that any but a few of those who faithfully read this blog (such as Joe Biden, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton) will ever face the same type of leadership challenges that have beset Barak Obama. But, even so, we can all learn from his experience in a way that will enable us to successfully face up to the task of retaining effective leadership power; no matter what may be our position of leadership. After all, a leader without power is not a leader.

It is a fact of life that everyone loves a leader until, that is, they actually begin to lead. To paraphrase Lincoln: You can lead all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot lead all the people all the time. Once a leader begins to use the power of their position to make changes or bring about new actions, if they are not careful, their power will begin to dissipate, because not all will agree with all their decisions. And that bottom line is this:

If the only approach to leadership is to use the power of the position to get things done, then that leadership will soon begin to show signs of “leadership rigor mortis.”

Decisions will begin to lack transparency, become narrow in scope, inflexible, non-responsive to input and rigid. This in turn leads to a loss of power and ultimately the death of leadership.

What leaders – at all levels – have to appreciate is that if they want to retain power, they must do even more to keep it than they did to attain it. This means they have to constantly strive to preserve the “freshness of power” as it was when they first acquired it. We all witnessed the emotion, excitement, optimism and hope of millions as Barak Obama was sworn in that day in 2009. Successful leaders recognize it is not possible to maintain power at such a pure level. After all they do have to lead. But they can focus on doing things with that idea in mind.

Preserving Power

There are a number of actions a leader can take to help preserve the freshness of power and prevent the onset of leadership rigor mortis. What many fail to understand is that one of the most effective ways for a leader to safeguard their power is to share power. When a leader apportions power among their followers, they broaden the base of their influence, which in turn, solidifies their power. Those who receive power from a leader will feel important, respected, trusted and valued. This will serve to motivate followers to work for the success of the leader, because that success could mean even more power will be shared.

The less a leader has to flex their power to get things done, the more power they will retain. The effective leader accomplishes this objective by first working to get the followers to “buy-in” to the specific goal of the leader and then allowing the followers to influence how the objective is achieved. To keep their power fresh, leaders should always be focused on what needs to be done, not how it is done. When a leader refrains from using their power to make all the decisions and instead empowers others to develop and implement the strategy and tactics of achieving an objective, the followers reach the point of believing (because it is true) that what is to be done is their own idea.

Employees Can be Leader and Followers  

When I was leading LifeUSA Insurance Company, I was convinced the company would have a competitive advantage if we could offer superior service to our independent agents. (When talking with agents in the field, poor service from other companies was their number one complaint.) Of course, every company could and did promise good service, but the key would be to deliver it; and most companies were failing to deliver.

It would have been easy to use my power as CEO to command the employees of LifeUSA to provide good service to the agent and then to tell them how to do it. Instead, I took the approach of trying to sell everyone in the company on the value to all stakeholders — including themselves – of providing top-flight service. Then, I challenged and empowered them to find the best way to convince the agent of our commitment to superior service, and to actually provide it.

Once the people of LifeUSA bought into the value to be gained by providing outstanding service to the agent (they were all also shareholders of the company) they set about finding a solution. The employees (owners) set up “Work Simplification Groups” that resulted in two great concepts: The “$100 48-hour Challenge” and the “Fast Team.”

The “48-hour challenge” promised the agent that once a properly completed application was received in the home office, a decision would be made and a policy issued within two days; or the agent would receive a check for $100. (Industry norm at the time was 6 to 8 WEEKS!) LifeUSA employees became so focused on meeting the “48-hour challenge” they would voluntarily take work home or come in on weekends to meet the goal. The idea of the “Fast Team” was to have a group of LifeUSA employees dedicated to being available to answer any agent questions, track down problems and resolve issues. (This also freed up others to do the actual work.) Not only was the “Fast Team” a way to demonstrate to the agent a commitment to service, but it also served as a great training ground to cross-train individuals in the ins and outs of the entire company.

These two efforts were not my ideas, but the ideas of those in the company, and came about because of a willingness to share power. Their efforts soon established LifeUSA as the preeminent provider of outstanding service in the insurance industry and were big contributors to the success of LifeUSA. It was a result that also increased the perception of my power and effectiveness as a leader.

One of the best ways to trigger leadership rigor mortis is to present followers with a fait accompli. Nothing drains the power of a leader faster than a situation where the decision, strategy and tactics are already decided and are imposed on the followers out of the blue. A leader should make it a point to never surprise followers by their decisions. A leader should understand that it takes more power to enlist the support of followers after a decision has been made, than it does to build that support before the decision is made.

One of the most consistent criticisms of President Obama’s leadership style that has brought on leadership rigor mortis is that he is not collaborative and inclusive; with both friends and enemies. It often appears that his approach is to use the power of his office to drive through what he wants to accomplish, rather than using his power to enlist the commitment of others to offer ideas and solutions and work for his objective.

At LifeUSA, when it was determined that a product, compensation system or some other process needed to be changed, and that chage would impact agents, the rule was to always solicit input and ideas from key leaders among the agent group. They were not given the power to make the decision, but they were empowered to provide input on the decision and offer suggestions as to the best way to make the necessary changes.

The benefits from this approach were numerous. Often times these field leaders were able to offer constructive suggestions and identify issues that we “experts” in the home office had not recognized. But the most important point was that when the final decision was announced, those who were most impacted were not surprised and taken off-guard. In fact, because they had been part of the process, these individuals took the lead in explaining and selling the changes to others in the field. From my perspective, this allowed me to achieve the objective, without having to expend a wad of power trying to force the change through. This approach in fact enhanced my power as a leader, because all of those involved knew they would be part of the process and share that power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Fame may be fleeting, but the power to lead effectively can be even more transitory—especially when power is the only basis of leadership. The solution to the challenge of retaining power and keeping it fresh is not found in power itself, but how power is used. To be enduring, power must be a tool of leadership, not a weapon of control.

When a person begins to believe that power is something that belongs to them, because they are in a position of leadership, they are marching down a dangerous path. And when that attitude causes the leader to focus on efforts such as a lack of transparency, inflexibility, rigidity and being non-responsiveness to input, all to keep that power corralled, they will soon find their power suffering from rigor mortis. When this happens, no matter what their title may be, they become powerless as leaders.

If You Want to Know the Cost of Inconsistent Leadership Just Ask President Obama

Trust is the petri dish for success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize leadership.

As 2013 wound down, President Obama was pressing to conclude a troop-withdrawal agreement with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. The agreement – a pact that took over a year to negotiate – had actually been sought by Karzai to assure that at least a few American security troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The negotiations, often as byzantine as New Jersey politics, finally came to a conclusion in November and the agreement was subsequently approved by the Afghanistan parliament. But then Karzai began to ask for more concessions and refused to sign the very agreement he had proposed and negotiated. A frustrated Obama replied by telling Karzai that if he didn’t sign the agreement by the end of the year then all bets were off. He warned Karzai that he would pull out all American troops and suggested he could go fly a kite.

Then on Christmas Eve, The New York Times ran a story under the headline “U.S. Softens Deadline for Deal to Keep Troops in Afghanistan_warAfghanistan.” The gist of the story was that Karzai was thumbing his nose at Obama’s threat, because he had learned that he could. The Times article pointed out, “Instead of prompting Mr. Karzai to action, however, setting a boundary appears to have only reinforced his sense that American officials will back down if he refuses their demands – a lesson that has been repeated often over the past 12 years.” Of course, the end of the year has come and gone along with Obama’s threat, and he’s still pleading with Karzai to sign the agreement.

The Fatal Flaw of Leadership

This story is emblematic of the problems President Obama has been confronted with because of a flaw in his basic leadership style and skills. President Obama has the ability to garner the trust of followers, but he lacks the consistency of action that converts trust into effective leadership. Trust is the petri dish for leadership success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize the power to lead. A leader who does not exhibit the consistency needed to back up trust loses it and soon becomes impotent and irrelevant.

There is a general consensus that, at least from the standpoint of progress and influence, 2013 was the worst year of the Obama presidency. His approval rating at the end of the first year of his second term is at the lowest of any president since Herbert Hoover. It is not so much that people have lost trust that Obama aspires to do what is right for the most people, but rather, they have increasing trepidations as to his competency as a leader. In other words people don’t question his desire to do the right thing, but there are questions regarding his ability to do the right thing. This emerging suspicion of incompetency is the residue of a trail of inconsistent words and actions by President Obama.

The leadership style of President Obama that has led to confusing actions and sputtering results is mentioned here because it can serve as a real-life, live learning-lesson for anyone who seeks any level of power and leadership. Many try to discover the secrets to successful leadership in schools and books. While some patterns can be absorbed from both, the best way to learn is by observing the challenges, travails, successes and failures of those in real-time leadership roles. The truth is that the opportunity to learn what works and what fails is available all the time and at all levels. It is possible to learn from the CEO of the company and even our own supervisor, just as much as we can gain by observing the actions of those in high levels of political power. One important point to recognize is that it’s possible to gain perspective on leadership by scrutinizing those who fail, just as much as those who are successful.

Watching the Political Drama Unfold on Obama’s Reality TV Show

The learning lesson here is President Obama’s actions as a leader. If you recall, the first promise Obama made was for “Change You Can Believe In.” Even for those who disagreed, there was little doubt that Obama was sincere in his desire to bring about change in government. And the changes he proposed were things a majority of American voters could believe in: Health care reform, transparency in government, renewed opportunity for the middle class, a bipartisan approach to politics and a refocusing of American foreign policy were just some of the major changes promised by candidate Obama. This is the type of action – setting a vision for accomplishment – that a leader can use to begin to build trust. But what Obama forgot – and no leader ever should forget:

Never promise more than can be delivered and always deliver more than promised.

It is critical for a leader to understand the difference between change, which means making things different and the sense of inconsistency that emerges when the approach to change changes. Followers must be able to take leader at their word or their word becomes meaningless.

Once a leader has won the battle to bring about change, only consistent words and actions will encourage everyone to move away from the status quo and convention of tradition and accept the new idea. On the other hand, inconsistency of word and action in implementing any change not only reduces the trust and confidence of followers, but provides leverage for those who are opposed to the change to weaken or destroy it.

There are a number of examples of inconsistent leadership that have allowed Obama to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but none Obamamore so than Obamacare. There is no question that Obamacare was a bruising fight, but there also is no question that Obama won the fight. Obama’s victory in health care reform would not have been possible without the trust of the people. Unfortunately for Obama’s reputation as a leader, the overpromises and inconsistencies that have followed have all but eviscerated the victory. Not only has this sputtering implementation of change severely tarnished Obama’s credibility as a trusted and competent leader, it has also provided chum in the water for the many sharks opposed to change.

Nor has Obama’s inconsistent leadership been limited to domestic affairs. In Egypt and the rest of the Middle East Obama called for a change toward democracy. Millions rose up in a cry for democracy, but when some semblance of it was achieved in Egypt, with a democratically elected government taking power, Obama became inconsistent in his support. Certainly the elected government in Egypt was not what the United States would have preferred, but that is not the point. The issue is consistency. You are either “for democracy” – and all it brings – or you are not. A leader cannot be consistent only when things go their way. If a leader is to retain the trust and confidence of followers they must be consistently consistent. Does Obama really have the trust and confidence of the people of Egypt and the Middle East that he is fully committed to democracy in the region? What will this do to his power to influence change in the future?

How can you be a trusted, strong successful leader if there are consistent inconsistencies between what you say and what you do? The answer is that you can’t be and it is a good lesson to learn. Trust is the most underrated aspect of organizational leadership. The presence of trust makes any effort possible. The absence of trust corrodes from within until nothing is possible. And nothing decays trust faster than inconsistency.

And the Moral of the Story …

The secret to building trust is consistency of purpose, words and action. What many don’t realize is that it is the little inconsistencies that wear away trust and prevent the achievement of great things; especially change. Personal style sets the tone for trust and consistency. It does not mean a leader has to be a saint, but it does mean that a leader can’t be a saint one day and the incarnation of the devil the next. Building trust starts with the consistency of the leader, even if consistency means consistently being a jerk. If a leader is going to set a standard – any standard – they have to stand by it. Developing trust for a leader does not mean that the followers necessarily like the leader or agree with the actions, but it does mean that they can count on the leader’s consistency.

There are no short-cuts, ticks or gimmicks that can be used to build trust, but there is a simple philosophy a leader can follow to take the trust gained and use it as a powerful vehicle for success. It is a secret as simple as 1-2-3.

  1. The leader must clearly communicate the vision and objectives to be accomplished.
  2. The leader must always do what they say they are going to do.
  3. Finally, the leader does 1 and 2 again and again.

If you want to succeed as a leader you must begin by being a consistent trust builder.