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Last week, Barack Obama, US president, made a decision about US military policy in Afghanistan. Some have said that it took over three months for the commander-in-chief to ratify a decision he had already taken back in March. For observers, this was an acute case study of the tension between two conflicting leadership traits: deliberation and decisiveness.
Mr Obama was elected last November in part because he is a clearly a thoughtful man who never knowingly shoots from the hip. On the other hand, there are those who prefer their leaders to tackle the tough decisions and move on, particularly in a military context.
Faced with a choice of two attractive qualities – deliberation and decisiveness – perhaps only the truly great leader knows which approach to take and when. However, the bias in American politics and business leadership is often towards decisiveness.
President Teddy Roosevelt said: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” In the business world, Larry Bossidy, the former chairman of Honeywell, and Ram Charan noted in their influential book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done: “Decisiveness is the ability to make difficult decisions swiftly and well, and act on them. Organisations are filled with people who dance around decisions without ever making them.”
However, the issue is not black and white. As a website set up to develop project managers who work for the US federal government notes: “Decisiveness, that ability to make quick and unambiguous decisions, is a trait often associated with great leaders, especially great military leaders. But how does that kind of decision-making fit into the demands of modern program management and when is a more deliberate, data-driven approach called for? What is your decision-making style and how do you adjust it to situational demands?”
These are the questions that the project-manager-in-chief must now answer. The danger for President Obama is that by revisiting and then delaying a key decision on Afghanistan, he may have both diminished his prestige and reduced his room for manoeuvre in future critical decision-making situations.
Why might his reputation suffer? As Robert Kaplan noted in The Atlantic last month: “The Democrats, for their part, are often accused of being wobbly on national security, lacking both toughness and gumption. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s recent handling of the war in Afghanistan plays to those charges.”
A president that prioritised the Afghan war during the election campaign, determined on a counter-insurgency strategy and chose a general to execute it in the spring, then balked at the general’s recommendations and reopened the strategy for review throughout the autumn is encouraging his political enemies to paint the Democrats as the party of President Carter and Senator McGovern. Even if the final decision looked more like Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Cold War anti-communist Democrat.
The president’s predicament was outlined by FT columnist Philip Stephens last November: “One of Mr Obama’s most dangerous enemies will be the impatience of our age: the ever present demands that tomorrow’s problems be fixed yesterday. Perhaps the new president will lack the decisiveness that is an essential partner to careful deliberation.”
Ten months later, Daniel Dombey, another FT correspondent, wrote an article headlined, “President procrastinator” in which he noted: “From the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan to the nuclear laboratories of Iran and the lands fought over by Arabs and Israelis, the world is waiting for Barack Obama to make up his mind.”
Knowing that the White House had announced that the president would arrive at a conclusion to his deliberations after Thanksgiving, did not stop Bob Ainsworth, the UK Defence Secretary, pointing out the problems that prolonged deliberation had on the British.
Mr Ainsworth told the Defence Committee that: “We have had a period of hiatus while McChrystal’s plan and his requested uplift has been looked at in the detail to which it has been looked at over a period of some months, and we have had the Afghan elections, which have been far from perfect let us say. All of those things have mitigated against our ability to show progress . . . when we are suffering the kind of losses that we are.”
The president justified his review last Tuesday: “There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period. Instead, the review has allowed me to ask the hard questions, and to explore all the different options, along with my national security team, our military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan, and our key partners. And given the stakes involved, I owed the American people – and our troops – no less.”
In a 2008 paper on “Decisiveness”, Junichiro Ishida of the Osaka School of International Public Policy, wrote: “An organization led by a decisive leader can seize the moment and change the course of action in a timely fashion, whereas an organization led by an indecisive leader often waits too long, requires unrealistically strong evidence before it changes the course of action, and as a consequence excessively adheres to the status quo.”
This is an intriguing predictor for what happened to the president’s policy on Afghanistan as the final decision ended up being a continuation of the surge that had already been agreed when General McChrystal was appointed to lead it.
Maureen Dowd noted in the New York Times last month: “The president should get credit for standing back and studying the issue, and for not rubber-stamping the generals’ predictable urge to surge. But the way he has handled the perception part has allowed critics – including generals – to cast him as indecisive.”
The deliberation or indecision on Afghanistan may finally have ended but the damage to Mr Obama’s reputation may take longer to mend.