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Lessons From Obama's Handling of the Syria Crisis

An apt case study on how (not) to lead through challenging times.
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The late NFL coaching great Tom Landry, who won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, used to say the art of leadership is getting people to do things they don't want to do in order to accomplish goals that they want to achieve.

That quote sums up both what's right and wrong with how President Obama has handled the crisis in Syria. It's a mess, but also a learning opportunity for entrepreneurs.

As I write this, Congress is debating whether to support Obama's plan to launch a limited missile strike against Syria, in response to that country's apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.

It's taken on greater urgency because the president had declared in an interview on Aug. 20 that use of chemical weapons would be "a red line for us" resulting in "enormous consequences." The next day, according to the White House, intelligence suggests the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons, killing men, women, and children.

While the president had all but promised an attack, the United States is a war-weary country and military action is a hard sell. Even supporters agree that a strike is simply the least bad of a bunch of bad alternatives. Here are three keys to leading through difficult times, illustrated by what Obama has and hasn't done.

Articulate smart, clear objectives

This week Obama will make his case that "not punishing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons would embolden his regime and his allies, Hezbollah and Iran." Are any of these compelling enough objectives for a skeptical American public? Of course, another, unspoken objective is simply to back up the president's words. Not acting could also make Obama look weak--which for some Americans may well be reason enough to be oppose action.

The lesson applies to entrepreneurial leadership. Do you want to launch a new product? Change compensation schemes? Or make difficult moves, like laying off employees? Step one involves being able to articulate smart, clear, and compelling objectives as to why you want to act. If you can't, it's a sign you're not leading well. 

Gather stakeholder support

After nearly 12 years of war, gathering support for a strike would be tough. Add to that the fact that politics have changed in the last two decades so that the old adage, "partisan politics stops at the water's edge" no longer applies.

Legally, Obama might not actually need the support of Congress to launch a limited strike. As The New York Times pointed out, the proposed attack "in some respects resembles the limited types that many presidents--Ronald Reagan in Grenada, Bill Clinton in Kosovo and even Mr. Obama in Libya--have launched on their own."

But given what has already transpired, going to Congress was a smart and unexpected move. If Congress approves the resolution, Obama is no longer on his own. If it declines, assuming Obama doesn't go ahead and attack anyway, at least he has a way to back out without getting the U.S. involved in a war all by himself.

Again, this goes to choosing the right objectives. If you can't garner support from your people, it tells you something either about your goals or your leadership style.

Build relationships first

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been trying to make up for lost time. On Sunday, they hosted about a dozen Republican senators and their families for a dinner, and other administration officials have been mounting a full-court lobbying press on Capitol Hill. But even some of the president's strongest supporters say it's unlikely he'll win the vote.

Part of the reason is that he simply doesn't have good relationships with members of Congress, especially those in the Republican majority. "You can't begin to build a relationship with Congress for the first time when you need their support on something like this," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois who supports the president. Kinzinger added that he'd offered over the weekend to help the White House garner more support among Republicans, but he hadn't heard back.

This is a crucial, long-term part of the process. Great leaders don't get a buy-in just because they articulate lofty goals. They get it because the people they're leading believe that if they put their fate in the leader's hands, they'll have a shot at success.

Last updated: Sep 9, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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