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John R. Ryan
Military/Administrative leader

John R. Ryan

John R. Ryan is president of the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive education.

A Sign for Obama's Mirror

More than anything, the Gates-Crowley incident shows we all have blind spots as leaders, even if you're the president of the United States. President Obama is an exceptionally talented man who won the presidency because of his appealing mix of wisdom, confidence and humility. But he displayed too much confidence and too little humility in initially criticizing police for the arrest of his friend Professor Gates.

It's easy enough to imagine how it happened. He was speaking at a press conference. He got lulled into the false sense of security that comes from speaking to a friendly audience. He's talking with a good understanding of the history of racial profiling and the law but without complete command of the facts. People are nodding in agreement, and suddenly he loses focus for an instant - and of course that's all it takes to trigger a controversy.

As leaders, we're all bound to say or do regrettable things from time to time. But by staying humble and reminding ourselves we don't have all the answers, we can avoid firestorms like this more often than not. There's also another lesson here: the importance of preparation.

I don't know what happened behind the scenes, but President Obama's team surely discussed this topic and should have prepared him with a very brief response for any questions about Gates. His off-the-cuff answer suggests that prep work wasn't thorough enough, and that was a very costly oversight. When a mistake is made, your inner circle is often too invested in the mistake to be objective in the corrective action.

It is important for every leader to have advisers outside your work environment. No doubt the president listened to Mrs. Obama and others he trusts who helped forge the right corrective action. I have a habit of putting a key reminder on my mirror to read each morning when I'm shaving. President Obama needs to have one that says "53/47." He won a remarkable and inspiring victory last November, but nearly half of voters still went for his opponent.

Reminding himself often of that fact and listening to those who know him best will provide a very focusing dose of humility and centeredness as he leads our nation through his key initiatives in the coming months.

By John R. Ryan

 |  August 4, 2009; 11:46 AM ET
Category:  Making mistakes Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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