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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

Bring critics into the fold

Question: Put yourself in the shoes of an autocratic Middle Eastern leader: Let peaceful protests continue and you could easily wind up out of power, like Egypt's Mubarak. Or get tough with the protests and you'll certainly lose popular and international support. What's the best strategy for holding onto power without harming the country?

When conditions have deteriorated to the point at which constituencies simply will no longer accept the status quo, you either offer concessions or have them taken from you. As such, the despotic leaders currently confronting a widespread populist surge across Africa and the Middle East must find ways to bring critics into the fold--to provide not just a voice to the oppressed, but a greater sense of control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.

Specifically, these leaders must first apologize and take responsibility for past mistakes in order to restore the credibility and trust that are required of any successful governing figure. Next, they must legitimize aspects of the opposition and provide them with representation in the government as soon as is possible. At the same time, clear distinctions must be drawn between the moderate voices who will take part in the process and the extremist factions whose participation would only further destabilize a tenuous situation and whose hard-line stances would make compromise impossible to achieve. Finally, these leaders must take to the same communications channels that the opposition currently dominates, such as social and digital media, in order to help conciliatory messages take hold amongst the people. If a 70-year-old U.S. Senator can learn to master Twitter, there's no reason they can't as well.

On the security front, military and police forces must be deployed only to keep the peace. Force must only be viewed as a last resort and always be utilized via non-lethal means. Such departures from "business as usual" can become symbols of the new way forward and that it's possible for even the most autocratic of regimes to reform.

Hosni Mubarak underestimated the people's power to take what had been kept from them for far too long. If other leaders throughout the region make the same mistake, it won't be long before they share his fate.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  February 23, 2011; 5:46 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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i would wipe out the indigenous population and place the remnants of them on reservations... then i would enslave whatever "races" required to build monuments to the great racists of my race... then i would free the slaves except abide by policies that keep them - except for a token few - in obviously subservient positions (of course the tokens would serve my agenda - which i and my media would never refer to as "racist"...)...

I would create the illusion of "equal protection" under law - except that “When the custody of children [or anything else I decide...] is the question … the best interest of the children [or some other interest of my choosing...] {shall be} the paramount fact. [Constitutional and inalienable] rights of father and mother [or whatever class of citizens i declare...] sink into insignificance before that.” Kartman v. Kartman, 163 Md. 19, 22,161 A. 269 (1932) - the names of the cases would be subject to the victims that come before my court...

in short, i would run my nation so that it appears to provide "freedom", balance of political powers, and "justice" except that only the wealthy of my race would enjoy freedom - so long as they 'served both to discriminate against ethnic minorities and to maintain advantages and benefits for the members of my race.'

I would do what "white" Americans do!

I would ensure that "black" women and girls feel better about themselves whenever they abandon loving the natural texture of thier own hair and instead straighten it to appear more "white" American - like the First Lady and her children: Sasha and Malia (all in the best interest of the children of course) lol

Posted by: stephendavid2002 | February 27, 2011 6:28 AM
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Politics and customer service have a lot more in common than many realize. In order to reach some common ground, these leaders really should bring critics into the fold as you suggest. They should also hear out their complaints and concerns and act on them in earnest if they’re valid. As this article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-recovery/how-to-put-loyalty-at-risk) points out, a lack of customer service leads to loyalty issues. The leaders in the Middle East sure seem to have those!

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | February 25, 2011 7:49 PM
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A leader without the support of his nation is not a leader at all. He is, at most, a gang leader. It is true that leaders must offer concessions or be removed from power. People will not follow down a path they do not want to walk. To assume that the stability of a nation, that is dominated by an autocrat, is worth the people sacrificing their desires, is demeaning to the people. Stability comes from content people, without that, change is inevitable. At this point, if the leader cares about his country, and not his personal power, then he will step down. Otherwise the transition will be less calm, but no less inevitable.
To bring critics into the fold is a way for governments to let the people have a say in their governing. This is a small form of democracy. If an autocrat is allowing this, then he is allowing a transition to democracy. This is good for the nation, but not for the autocrat; therefore, unfortunately, unlikely.

Posted by: alexdobranich | February 25, 2011 11:35 AM
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I agree with the suggestions made here by Goodwin, however I believe that some structure should be added to the formula. A good leader, in such stressful situations as the ones encountered by Mubarak in Egypt, will have to make concessions and compromises with constituencies, or run the risk of being ousted by a hostile nation of protestors. Giving the oppressed increased representation in the ruling government, apologizing for errors, and increasing communication with the oppressed constituency are all appropriate steps. The question remains, in what order? The methods used to implement these strategies should be subject to trial, error, and scrutiny so that they actually take effect and produce a real remedy to the problem.

In order to implement the first two mentioned remedies to the question at hand, communication is the most important part of the process. The next part of the process should be to rebuild credibility in the institution by taking responsibility for mistakes made by the government. When one person holds so much power (as did Mubarak) it is imperative to use personal communication strategies to assure the opposing parties that their complaints have been heard and are being taken into consideration. The final step of this process should be to grant more representation to the oppressed party in government.

Implementation of these suggestions will be effective only if they are executed tactfully. The situation is already volatile, and it will take an extreme measure of sensitivity and flexibility on the part of both parties to come to a non-violent consensus that produces real, long term solutions to issues in question.

Posted by: dorianhicks | February 24, 2011 6:50 PM
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I agree with the suggestions made here by Goodwin, however I believe that some structure should be added to the formula. A good leader, in such stressful situations as the ones encountered by Mubarak in Egypt, will have to make concessions and compromises with constituencies, or run the risk of being ousted by a hostile nation of protestors. Giving the oppressed increased representation in the ruling government, apologizing for errors, and increasing communication with the oppressed constituency are all appropriate steps. The question remains, in what order? The methods used to implement these strategies should be subject to trial, error, and scrutiny so that they actually take effect and produce a real remedy to the problem.

In order to implement the first two mentioned remedies to the question at hand, communication is the most important part of the process. The next part of the process should be to rebuild credibility in the institution by taking responsibility for mistakes made by the government. When one person holds so much power (as did Mubarak) it is imperative to use personal communication strategies to assure the opposing parties that their complaints have been heard and are being taken into consideration. The final step of this process should be to grant more representation to the oppressed party in government.

Implementation of these suggestions will be effective only if they are executed tactfully. The situation is already volatile, and it will take an extreme measure of sensitivity and flexibility on the part of both parties to come to a non-violent consensus that produces real, long term solutions to issues in question.

Posted by: dorianhicks | February 24, 2011 6:49 PM
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To say that an autocratic ruler can maintain power without harming the country is erroneous. Yet a leader has the chance not to further exacerbate political and social unrest if meaningful changes are made. I agree with Robert Goodwin’s point above that leaders must bring critics into the fold. I also agree with his recommendation that leaders acknowledge past mistakes and offer apologies for such infractions. Yet equally important is offering a vision for the future, with tangible changes specifically in terms of human rights, changes that take into consideration the opinion of such aforementioned critics who serve as the voices of the oppressed. Without such a vision of change, protests will not cease. Yet even with a vision of change and recognition of past transgressions, no autocratic leader is secure. An ineffectual and oppressive leader holding onto power will only have deleterious effects on the nation as a whole and will ultimately be overthrown. Unless there is a wholesale transformation of a leader, legitimized by the people, no autocrat can expect to maintain power with the interests of the nation in mind.

Posted by: colleenfugate | February 24, 2011 6:36 PM
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Robert Goodwin speaks well to the necessity for negotiation and compromise in a situation where an autocracy is being challenged. However strategies such as compromise are, unfortunately, not an option for autocratic leaders whose images are shaped by intimidation and domination. With this being the case, in a situation where the population has shown its dissent with the current leadership, it seems almost impossible for an autocratic leader to retain power without harming the country because in order to secure power, one would have to silence protests which would further the decline in popular and international support.

Posted by: EdithTeng | February 24, 2011 5:17 PM
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