When the going gets tough, the tough get...
Q: Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama White House portrays a president so frustrated with top military advisers for their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan that he devised one himself. How should leaders reconcile the laudable instinct to rely on the advice of experts with the sometimes urgent need to force them to think outside the box?
President Harry Truman had it right when he stated, that the "buck stops" at the President's desk. At the highest level of decision-making, strategic reality and political necessity often do not align. That tension creates the most difficult decisions presidents and CEO's make.
Look at Lincoln's frustration with General Meade after the Union victory at Gettysburg, when Meade did not vigorously pursue and try to destroy Lee's wounded army as it withdrew to safety in Virginia. Review FDR's decision to overrule his Joint Chiefs of Staff and to invade North Africa in 1942. Recall Lyndon B. Johnson's agony as he realized that his decision to escalate the Vietnam War and his inability to decide on a way out of it destroyed his ability to complete his design for a "Great Society." How are these decisions that different from the critical decisions Louis Gerstner made in saving IBM?
In the case of strategic advice to a president, his senior military advisers must give him their best advice as they see it, no matter how painful. When faced with a desire to define an end state--and it is not clear that was the entire question at issue with the president in regard to Afghanistan--his military advisers gave their assessment of the conditions needed in order to reach a strategic culminating point conducive to withdrawing US forces. When the political pressure to end a campaign and the strategic reality of the situation on the ground supporting cessation remain in tension, and when only unsatisfactory alternatives remain, the president must force a decision, as President Obama did. No one promised this process would be an easy one.
This reality does not just pertain to national security. It happens in businesses and institutions across the land when they confront their most difficult dilemmas. At times faced with the potential demise of the institution, the senior leader must, based on his sense of the uncertainties and utilities of the situation, create his own course of action and marshal the consensus needed to support it.
We shouldn't see this pattern as unreasonable; it remains a reality for strategic leaders in decisions when the stakes are greatest and the uncertainties profound.
Gen. Monty Meigs (Ret.)
September 28, 2010; 3:32 PM ET
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