Monday, May 18, 2009

Leadership and Hard Choices: Obama and "Those" Pictures

A couple of notes:

On the personal side, check out a new website called The Stimulist. Went live last week. Subtitle is "The Optimist's Daily Brief" and the human spirit behind it is an up-and-coming rising star, journalist Carlos Watson. Watson has an original take on the news and what's happening. For us old folks, it is a way to stay in touch with the men and women who are going to be running everything soon. For Watson's age cohort of 28-45 year olds, it has the aspiration and the potential to be a touchstone and a voice for a refreshing sensibility that succeeds at walking that razor's edge, being optimistic without being naive and being realistic without being cynical. Oh, the personal part? My son, Max Linsky, is the Managing Editor.

This realism/optimism thing got a boost last Sunday when the New York Times published Adam Bryant's interview with Microsoft's CEO, Steven A. Ballmer. Here are two exchanges I don't want you to miss:

(1) Bryant: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Ballmer: Finding the right balance between optimism and realism.
(2) Bryant: How do you assess job candidates?
Ballmer: "......And I try to figure out sort of a combination of I.Q. and passion.

I like it that Ballmer sees optimism and realism as synergistic, and that he recognizes the important of passion, caring deeply about something and not being afraid to display the emotion that goes with the commitment.


The controversy over the CIA pictures, and President Obama's flip-flop on whether to release them or to contest the ACLU lawsuit demanding their release, is a powerful example of what makes leadership difficult. Read Jeff Zeleny's piece last week in The Caucus, the New York Times' government and politics blog.

Leadership is difficult because it requires choosing among competing values, each of which has legitimate claims to be honored, each of which is treasured.

Such choices are painful. You have to re-order your loyalties. You have to put a stake in the ground. You have to disappoint those who were counting on you to put their value at the top of your list.

In the case of the detainee pictures, Obama originally decided to let the pictures be released, then changed his position. We don't want our politicians to change their positions. We call them flip-floppers, a pejorative. We would rather have them be consistent than be educated.

On the pictures, Obama weighed multiple competing values. Among the most obvious are:

(1) transparency, a value he has espoused frequently during his Presidency;

(2) moving on rather than seeking retribution for past sins;

(3) consistency;

(4) deference to technical expertise (in this case, the "technical expertise" is really just the best guess of his military advisers about the consequences of releasing the photos); and

(5) supporting the judgment of those who he has appointed to senior authority roles.

There is no analytically correct answer. News junkies like me could probably make cogent arguments for any position. What we want Obama to do depends on our own personal perspective, not only only those values but on Obama and politics.

As of today, Obama seems to have made a choice that disappointed almost everyone except the military. Combined with the rest of his national security policy he is being criticized from the left and the right. From the left there's Maureen Dowd's parody in the Wednesday New York Times picturing him as a Rumsfeld-Cheney puppet. From the right, Dick Cheney is criticizing his every move. In the center, he has challenged centrists who want to close Guantanamo, but not have any of the detainees on US soil.

As Peter Baker pointed out in his front page news analysis in today's Times, Obama's pragmatism, his unwillingness to follow a consistent ideological line, will disappoint partisans of both extremes and will ensure that the debate stays front and center.

But the reality that so many people are pushing back may also be evidence that he is doing something important, by carving out a governing path that does not fall into the usual categories.

Not all resistance is evidence of leadership. But there can be no leadership without people pushing back.


filipe brum said...

In certain aspects of my life I find very difficult to make structural choices, not only but also because of the disappointment they may imply to others.
And if there’s one thing I find hard to sleep with is the fact of letting people down.
I hate letting people down.
But when you feel in your gut that you must make hard choices, and live with them and by them, because that’s the only way you know how to make your life worthy of a purpose, then you stick to it.
A friend of mine once told me: if you can be under fire once in a while, why should you remain quite at home all the time?
My point is: yes it’s tough, to say the least, to make choices. But it’s tougher to spend your life serving others purpose. Sorry, not me! That’s not what I was born for.
In serious environments people say about me that I don’t talk a lot, but when I do everybody listens. Everybody.
So, despite of all the difficulties, every time I have the opportunity to shake the waters as a mean to help others, I do so, and I’ll keep doing so, no matter who get’s disappointed.
Crazy? No, brave. Oh, and scared! But let’s keep going, one step at a time.
Thanks for your time.
Your friend, and reader,

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