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On Point

America's Strategic Leadership Deficit


by Austin Bay
August 9, 2011

America's military services devote much time and thought to developing strategic leaders. Producing a leader capable of commanding a combat theater like CENTCOM remains a long and involved process, where experience and maturation progressively hone cognitive, interpersonal and managerial skills.

Yet there are no guarantees that the four-star assuming theater command will succeed at the task of leading such a complex organization during peacetime, much less under the relentless pressure of war.

Leadership, whatever the situation -- whether civilian, commercial, military, in a classroom, at a car wreck -- is an art. Art always involves creativity. The art of leadership demands creativity and creative adaptation as time passes and circumstances evolve. Any endeavor involving creativity and adaptation involves uncertainty of outcome, no matter the perceived level of individual leadership ability.

Yet some leadership experiences are more instructive than others, particular for leadership at the highest levels. George Forsythe, in an article titled "The Preparation of Strategic Leaders" (U.S. Army War College, Parameters Magazine, Spring 1992) argued that "learning experiences that challenge existing frames of reference are more likely to foster (strategic leader) development than those that do not. A byproduct of this may be student discomfort and frustration. Few officers like to have their opinions challenged and their logic critiqued. Such challenges can lead to defensiveness and anger ..." Forsythe said mentors must "help officer students work through the emotional responses that accompany threats to their customary modes of thinking."

In other words, an effective strategic leader must early on in his development learn to manage his ego and master corrosive emotions when confronting demanding circumstances and challenging ideas.

The president of the United States is definitely a strategic leader. As Barack Obama has discovered, winning the presidential election gives the victor the chief executive's office, perquisites and responsibilities. It does not, however, automatically make him an effective strategic leader.

The 3 a.m. crisis phone call Hillary Clinton featured in a brilliant, now iconic campaign ad targeted Candidate Obama's lack of prior executive experience -- a not-so-subtle attack on Obama's lack of development as a leader. In the 2008 general election, Republicans repeated Clinton's argument.

At the time, a majority of American voters decided Obama's developmental deficiency did not matter. Hope and change polemics, with the aid of teleprompters, Hollywood stagecraft and major media cheerleading, camouflaged Obama's weakness.

Crisis has exposed his weakness, and it matters. Consider an indicative anecdote. During critical budget discussions at the White House involving House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, President Obama left the room with this parting shot: "Don't call my bluff, Eric." Obama meant to say "I'm not bluffing," but angry and defensive, he muffed it. Subsequent events demonstrate Obama was bluffing, so his emotional reaction telegraphed his political strategy.

In Forsythe's terms, Cantor's frame of reference (let's call it free market, low tax, liberty defending conservative) challenged Obama's (big government, tax-and-spend, social justice liberal). Obama reacted to Cantor like one of Forsythe's agitated student officers, not as the leader of leaders. Not effective. Not inspiring. Not a strategic leader.

In his televised speech this Monday, Obama had the opportunity to acknowledge that ongoing events challenge the orthodox answers of Washington's political right and left. With the gyrating Dow as a backdrop, he could have mapped out new political territory. Imagine the positive global jolt of a statement like: "In the next week, I am going to reduce the current budget deficit by $300 billion. I challenge my opponents, left and right, to examine their hearts and make a commensurate commitment to financial stability."

That would have demonstrated savvy, unifying strategic leadership, and likely assured his election in 2012. Instead, he chose paralysis, reciting his liturgy of sock-the-rich tax hikes.

Function has followed formation. What leadership skills Obama possesses he honed as a community organizer, slang for a political leader mobilizing a neighborhood to attack real and perceived injustices perpetuated by the larger community. This is an us-versus-them gambit where the organizer relies on rhetorical skills and media magnification to spread a message of blame. Mobilization using wedge issues differs from community-building -- that requires a leader who bridges differences and unites in order to achieve.

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