American was given a lesson in leadership this week and it came in interviews with former president George W. Bush and current president Barack Obama that were aired barely twenty-four hours apart.
In the Obama interview that aired on Sunday evening, Americans saw a president tempered by conservative victories in the recent election and willing to admit failure. Asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Croft if he had “lost his mojo,” Obama answered, “I think it’s—I think it’s a fair argument, you know, I—I think that over the course of two years, we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, you know, leadership isn’t just legislation, that it’s a matter of persuading people.” This was vintage Obama—examining the subject from every angle, pondering alternate views, seeing the issue as an abstract problem.
Then, Bush, on Monday night, interviewed by Matt Lauer. Asked if he thought water boarding was wrong, he said, simply, “No.” Asked why, he said, “Because the lawyers said so.” Asked if he thought the intelligence which convinced him to invade Iraq had failed him, he said, “No.” And so it went. Simple thoughts and simple answers leading to certain action.
It may be that in the Bush and Obama presidencies we have two extremes that leaders ought to examine. In Obama is the academic, for whom every problem is an intellectual problem which must be pondered endlessly before action, likely hesitant action, is taken. This is what made him a successful campaigner but , so far, a mediocre president. A campaign has one objective: to win. This sole objective focuses the mind and provides a predetermined set of assumptions that makes action easier. A presidency, on the other hand, is a firestorm of options. Everything must be chosen from a vast array of possibilities, beginning with the decision about what must be done and continuing through a dozen other choices before even arriving at how action should be taken. If there is a case to be made that academics have historically made poor presidents, this may be why.
Yet Bush is nearly the opposite extreme. His mind is geared towards reducing information to terms that lead to action. When Matt Lauer tried to draw him into a philosophical discussion about human rights and torture, Bush wasn’t having it. The lawyers had spoken. Lives were at stake. I was right. That was what he knew. This isn’t a function of intelligence but rather cast of mind. Bush measures knowledge in terms of how it leads to action. Higher thought for its own sake is a waste of time. Clearly, both the title of his book—Decision Points—and the way he recounts his presidency, reveal what he values: Look, I acted on what I knew. I acted decisively. I wouldn’t change much of anything. Let history judge.
What a leader should strive for is not a balancing act between these two but rather a timing act. There are times when a leader should be Obama. Hopefully, this is in quiet hours of mediation, reading on a plane or in stimulating discussion with friends. This is where thorny philosophical problems are hammered out. This is when policies are determined.
Yet when faced with challenge, leaders need to have another gear, a Bush gear. They need to be able to decide, decide quickly and stick to their guns until the evidence points to a different course of action. Frankly, absence of this gear is absence of leadership. And we’ve had plenty of it: the manager who reads every new leadership book but who can’t make a decision, the coach who gets weepy about the history of his sport but who can’t send in a play, the president who seems paralyzed by the options before him.
We don’t need philosophers on the battlefield. We don’t need quick deciders in the strategy room. But great leaders are both at the right time. And aspiring leaders prepare themselves wisely, mastering the art of timing for both higher thought and decisive action.