Our President Needs Real Leadership Skills

There were many occasions, during my thirty-four or so years of serving in the U.S. Army, when I took command of failing military units and nursed them back to good, sound health. I did it so often that it became one of my specialties.

If you tell soldiers or units often enough that they are failures, they will become failures even when they are not. A real leader must instill within his subordinates the feeling and knowledge that they are or can quickly become certain “winners” and that if they do what he tells them to do they will not only succeed, but will set the standard for other units to emulate.

The worst thing a new leader can do is to start off by blaming others, threatening punishment or, as President Obama so smugly puts it, “kicking ass.” Obviously he is still in the process of learning that no one can effectively build a unit and motivate their subordinates to successfully attack and solve major problems if the subordinates are in constant fear of being fired or publicly humiliated.

Experience also teaches that sometimes when you assemble a group of brilliant authorities who expertly wrestle their way through a problem and come to a brilliant consensus they are sometimes wrong. Thus you may suffer through the embarrassment of having kicked the wrong “ass.” Experienced leaders know that it is much more effective to motivate your subordinates through reward than through punishment.

The mission statement for every leader from President of the United States to CEO to Boy Scout leader is “well developed skills of persuasion and openness to working through controversy in a positive way.” That is, everyone has their say and dissenting views are openly examined, discarded or expanded upon and adopted. Most of the time an authoritative leadership style is less preferred than a participatory one. Unfortunately for Obama, who still has so much to learn about leadership, there is no substitute for a lack of seasoned instinct and the ability to identify and deal with ever increasing challenges.
Fort Benning, Georgia is the home of the U. S. Army’s Infantry School. I have been assigned to or visited it many times; its motto is “Follow Me!” Those who attend the school major in “LEADERSHIP, LEADERSHIP, and LEADERSHIP!” To help vividly impress the importance of leadership upon the minds of the students is the statue of an infantry leader caught in mid stride, clutching a rifle in his left hand and signaling with his up-raised right arm for those behind to follow him. Appropriately it is named “Follow Me!” 

We have a saying in the Infantry. To really know what’s going on in battle you must go to the sound of the guns, the rifles, the machine guns, the pounding mortars, and the screaming “incoming” artillery shells. There is no substitute for going where the action is! Dithering in your headquarters or in the White House for weeks or flying around the country attending parties, social events, speaking at political fund raisers or playing basketball and golf simply doesn’t cut it.

A real leader immediately goes to the sound of the guns, the disaster area, and when he gets there he talks directly to those who are leading the battle – those directly in charge of stopping and containing the oil spill. He purposes to talk to the “James Carvilles’” who speak for everyone living and making a livelihood along the Gulf Coast when he cries out,
“We’re dying down here!” A true leader recognizes and responds to the pleas for a personal visit and measurable, immediate help.

The worst thing to do is to fail to give the “first responders” and the Governors at the oil spill whatever they request. Most request made by those involved in close combat are for necessities but some are just morale building. I remember my soldiers during one of my tours in Vietnam asking for ice cream to go with their “Thanksgiving” meals. They certainly didn’t need ice cream and it wasn’t on the menu. In fact, it was a real challenge and inconvenience to locate and helicopter it in; but it gave them a sense of home and put a light in their tired eyes. Those who face death daily deserve all the ice cream they can eat and I got it for them.

Our President has yet to learn that a true leader gives his soldiers — those fighting and winning the battle — and his subordinates whatever it takes to cause them to rise up and slay the dragons. Or, in this case, oil spills and plumes. That’s how leaders motivate their followers to successfully tame catastrophic disasters and to snatch success from the jaws of failure.

In the meantime, to the dangerous detriment of our country, Obama is on a very sharp and short learning curve. It is time he either learned his job, or turned it over to someone who can.