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Scott DeRue
Leadership professor

Scott DeRue

Scott DeRue is Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. With Maxim Sytch, he created the student-driven Leadership Seminar discussion group.

Leading without 'right answers'

Q: In the past week, China and Israel have issued sharp rebukes to President Obama and his approach to issues relating to trade and West Bank settlements. As a world leader facing political challenges at home, is this the right moment for Obama to show toughness and resolve and risk escalating the confrontations or to demonstrate patience and diplomacy in trying to defuse them?

Despite repeated attempts by the international community to engage China in discussions about trade and economic policy, Chinese leadership remains unwilling to reevaluate its approach to currency valuation. Likewise, Israel remains steadfast in its occupation of West Bank settlements. In response, President Obama must not fall trap to a common leadership mistake. That is, President Obama must not view his approach to addressing these contentious situations as an either/or proposition. These situations are neither routine nor do they offer a straightforward solution, and President Obama's approach to addressing these situations must recognize and appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of each situation.

To make progress on either front, President Obama must show resolve and an unwavering commitment to addressing the situation. But at the same time, he must also remain patient, rely on diplomacy, and build international support for any possible resolution to have a chance at success. In his book, Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky discussed the concept of adaptive leadership challenges where there is no clear, straightforward answer.

Both China and Israel qualify as adaptive challenges. In situations such as these, leaders must overcome any inclination that they have the right answer. Instead, leaders must enable the people closest to the problem to develop and implement a solution.

President Obama's greatest challenge is now getting the key stakeholders in each situation to come to the table ready to discuss, negotiate, and work together toward a mutually acceptable solution. Clearly this will take resolve as well as patience. He must build the case for why a solution is imperative for all parties involved, which thus far, has not been done.

What exactly does China have to gain by revaluing its currency? What does Israel have to gain by opening up or even withdrawing from the West Bank? President Obama must then engage all of the key stakeholders in adjusting any unrealistic expectations, and create an environment where these parties can collectively work towards a solution.

Unfortunately, the United States has developed a reputation for imposing its will on other nations. If I can say anything with certainty, it is that a forceful hand will not lead to success in either of these situations. Instead, the U.S. must communicate its unwavering commitment to helping the international community address these situations, and then exhibit world-class diplomacy and leadership by enabling all stakeholders to develop and realize their own shared vision of success.

By Scott DeRue

 |  March 17, 2010; 11:39 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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