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 Obama “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.”