From Russia and China to Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan, President Obama certainly has his foreign policy challenges. Yet I sympathize with him. He's still relatively new to all this. And he grew up in a world of law and rules and community activism. He's never had to deal with the antics of a Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin.
Me, on the other hand. I'm used to these kinds of characters. The guys running these countries are no different than the people I do business with every day. So here's a little advice to the President for how to recognize and deal with these people that only a business owner could give.
Vladimir Putin ("The Thug")
You know this guy, right? If he's not running the KGB, then he's running a business that has something to do with construction, waste removal, or anything else where men work outside with their hands. He grew up in a working class family and either took the business over from the "old man" or built it with his "own two God-d**n hands." He'll ask you manly questions like whether you ever served in the military or how many bench presses you can do. This is the guy who looks at me, a balding, former CPA who can barely change a light bulb, with amused disgust. This is the guy who negotiates through fear and intimidation. But don't believe the act. The thug is testing you. You've got to act tough too. You've got to be able to look him in the eye and not blink. When he says, "I will only pay $X amount" for your product, you've got to shrug and say, "suit yourself," and be prepared to show him your back. Always make good on your promises (or threats). He'll respect you for that. He's not going to hit you. Well, probably not.
Kim Jong-un ("The Idiot Son")
As is the case in North Korea, dad has passed away, and now it's the son's turn at this business. But unfortunately the son doesn't have the experience, the relationships, or that commanding personality that the old man had. He was raised differently. Unlike his dad, he went to college, was always provided for, and never really had to fight for anything. He is understood to lack the leadership skills necessary to take the company into the next decade. But don't believe any of this. The Idiot Son (or daughter) is not such an idiot. Never, ever treat this person like an idiot. Never, ever say things like, "In my day we did it like this," or "Your dad wouldn't have done it this way." No, no. Assume this is Michael, not Fredo. The son is looking for respect and to be treated like an equal. He is in charge now, so deal with it. He's a brand new customer with a brand new set of needs and demands.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("The Slimeball")
His is a familiar face: the customer who you can never trust, but you have to deal with. Because, like me, you'll do business with people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; it's profitable and you have a family to feed. The fact is that America will never be able to ignore Iran and the same goes for the slimeball who keeps coming back for more product even though you can't stand him. Or trust him. Hopefully you've recognized this type of character in advance: the narrowed eyes, the fake smile, the limp handshake, the opportune forgetfulness when it comes to remembering an agreed-upon price, the repeated asks for another discount. With this guy, what you see is definitely not what you get. But you do business with him anyway. You never do anything major, never partner, and never expect you're creating a long term relationship. You never provide him a service without getting paid in advance. You document everything (even it if doesn't make a difference). Oh, and you definitely keep him away from your daughters.
Bashar al-Assad ("The Genius In His Own Mind")
Never mind that his country is imploding and he lacks the support of western civilization. He just keeps doing what he's doing. Because he always knows what's best. He tells stories of his achievements, how he won this and that argument, why he know more about business than anyone else. Pay no mind that he's operating his business from a run down industrial park near the airport or above a Chinese restaurant in a suburban strip mall. It's all part of his master plan. This is the genius in his own mind. You won't win an argument. You can't impress him. He knows all the answers. All you can do is be polite and try not to get sucked into his delusional vortex. Don't believe it when he asks for a lower price because this sale is "just the tip of the iceberg," or that if you cut him a deal he's got "big and powerful friends" to introduce you to. It's this type that will try to convince you he's more successful than you are. And his is usually a house of cards--like Syria.
Xi Jinping ("The Chairman Of The Board")
Yup, he's the real deal. He's the CEO of your largest customer. He runs a bigger business than yours, lives in a bigger house than you do, and drives a much nicer car. His kids go to Ivy League colleges, his clothes are stylish, and his (current) wife never looks older than 30 (because she's not older than thirty). He's a smart business person who has become a huge success professionally, but probably has problems at home because of all he sacrifices. Don't talk about that. Talk business. Leadership. Richard Branson. Jack Welch. Peter Drucker. For this guy to have reached this level of success, he's an expert at weeding out the liars and relying on those he trusts. You need to be like him. And the only way to do that is to be completely straightforward with him. But be careful. Big companies, like big countries, are run by ruthless men. Men who, like Xi Jinping, will take advantage of rivals when they can. Don't be a rival. Be a friend.
Hamid Karzai ("The Milquetoast")
Don't you love the guy who is led by others? Always being told what to do. Never able to make a decision on his own? That's Karzai. That's The Milquetoast. Weak and indecisive. Reacting to the complaints of his sales manager. Fretting over the happiness of his customer service director. Fearing the next email from his finance guy. He somehow keeps his business profitable by running by committee, afraid to upset the masses. He'll never make a tough decision, just the popular one. The trick to doing business with the milquetoast is negotiating with the others who are truly pulling the strings behind the scenes. Like the tribal leaders in Afghanistan, you'll need to forge relationships with his sales, service, and finance people. Or even the office manager if he or she turns out to be the power center (which happens a lot). You can't ignore the milquetoast, but you can't depend on him either.
Struggling with these pesky foreign leaders, Mr. Obama? Oh please, try running a small business for a few years. You'll find yourself dealing with characters like these every day!