The Syrian crisis: Study leadership decisions not leadership styles

September 16, 2013

The complexities of leadership make assessments of a leader’s style less effective than assessments of a leader’s most critical decisions and dilemmas

The story of Syria’s internal conflicts and external attempts at intervention remains complex and obscure. I want to advocate its analysis through a study of leadership dilemmas and decision-making.

My executive students are familiar with the principle through applying it to current leadership cases. Here is how the approach may be effective in understanding some of the complexities of the Syrian crisis [as of September 2013].

Media treatments

Media treatments are arriving at a narrative or interpretive story of events in Syria. In the narrative, the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad faces increasing attempts to overthrow his regime by a complex set of internal interests. The American President Barack Obama would like to intervene, preferably with support from the international community. The Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the forces opposing Assad are waging war against a legally constituted leader.

The nature of narrative

Narrative by its nature is interpretative. It implies a belief in a story. I like to think of the story as a map or interpretation of a real-world reality. The Russian, American and Syrian maps differ. The real-world events involve thousands of people being killed, millions being displaced. If the narratives are maps, the conflict is the territory represented in the maps.

Dilemmas

News stories provide us with the maps. One way to examine them is to consider evidence of the most important dilemmas facing leaders. That way we glimpse the leadership processes better. For example, an excellent analysis in the Wall Street journal [updated and uploaded 15 Sept 2013] gives a Western map of current events. It also suggests the dilemmas facing President Obama.

Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place…

[D]uring a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.

Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.

Map-reading

Before I can assess or ‘map-test’ the ‘rightness’ of decisions, I need to ‘map-read’ thoroughly. The story suggests a critical dilemma. Mr Obama [it says] wants to reduce the U.S.’s role as global cop, but finds himself ‘lurching into launching a strike against Syria’. The dilemma, and the Presidential decision-making start to resolve with ‘the unintended outcome’ of the public remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and the reaction by his Russian counterpart.

Map-testing

This interpretation of events can be tested. Kerry’s statement is the most public. That it was ad-libbed and not offical policy is a piece of map-making or interpretation by the WSJ. Mr Lavrov’s reply is reported but not public. Subsequent events give it, and the narrative or map some plausibility.

Map-making

The events may have helped President Obama re-make his map to increase the chances of a non-military approach to Syria. The debate continues whether this is ‘true’; whether it was influenced by the decision of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to withhold support for military action; whether The Russian position and that of President Bashar al-Assad are to be trusted. But these become speculations. By sticking with dilemmas and decisions we avoid the morass we find ourselves in when dealing with such speculation.

I have chosen to examine the dilemmas facing President Obama. A richer picture (or map) emerges only after examination of other maps, other decisions, other leaders.


The leadership dilemma: On being right and appearing weak

September 2, 2013

One repeated theme in the desperate series of events taking place in Syria is the dilemma facing leaders embroiled in them. Politically, so often doing what a leader believes to be right risks public perceptions of being a week leader

The struggles are clear if we look at the behaviours in the UK last week [August 24-30th] of Prime Minister Cameron and the leader of the Opposition, David Miliband as well as the impact on those of President Obama.

Early in the week, the bloodshed in Syria escalated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians apparently from a chemical weapons attack. President Obama had indicated earlier that use of chemical weapons would pass a ‘red line’ resulting in intervention by the USA. After the attack, the White House indicated that some military response would occur.

The House is recalled

Mr Cameron returns from holiday early and recalls MPs to the House for a motion backing direct action against the perpetrators of the chemical attack, and implicitly supporting the imminent US actions. Mr Cameron was at one with many Western commentators that the Syrian regime was responsible and that action to respond to ‘discourage and degrade’ future use of chemical weapons in Syria. Initially Mr Miliband supported the principle of military involvement. Both leaders also took pains to recognize the intervention in Iraq by Tony Blair was increasingly seen as ill-judged, and the public would need reassuring of the possibility of a limited strike without unintended longer-term consequences. As I write those words it seems inconceivable that Cameron and Miliband believed the military case that such a ‘hygienic’ strike was possible.

In a few days, the recalled members of Parliament had made it clear to their respective leaders that many of them would not support military action. Both back-pedalled. Miliband found a form of retreat that called for time, which Cameron did not seem to have if the American action were to be supported. Cameron proposes a watered-down motion seeking agreement in principle on military action, and promising further debate before actual action.

Defending the indefensible

Cameron skilfully almost defended the indefensible. Miliband had a bad attack of first night nerves. The subsequent debate was at times muddled. Some speakers seem to have stuck to their original drafts ignoring how the motion had changed. The mood of the house however was of individuals with honourable intentions to support or oppose according to conscience or argument, regardless of leadership intentions. Enough conservatives opposed the motion for it to defeated. Immediately, Cameron said he ‘got it’. There would be no UK support for US military action.

The American response

A few days later President Obama indicated that the intended action would be delayed, following a proposal put to his own legislators. It was widely interpreted as a response to the UK political debate

Doing right and appearing weak

What do I mean by ‘doing right and appearing weak’? The three leaders changed their positions during the period of a week. Obama had made the commitment to act in Syria if the regime crossed the red line of using chemical weapons. He believed he had the moral right to do so, and the support of the American public. He was risking appearing week by delaying. Now pollsters suggest the public considers him even weaker, although several commentators have recognized that his search for consensus in and outside The US is attempting to avoiding unintended consequences of action. [One defense was made by an earlier politician, ‘when events change, I change my mind, what do you do?’. The issue is more how often the leader changes]

Mr Cameron is judged weak when he tried to seek cross-party support for military action by offering a second vote so that in principle he could support any American action.

Mr Miliband quickly learned that he could not deliver opposition support to a military venture. It may have been a cunning plan on his part, but if so he looked thoroughly miserable as he spoke in the house to his new position.

It is rather easy to see how seeking consensus, and changing one’s position are seen as signs of a weak leader. Seeing what is the right course of action is altogether trickier.