Archive for February, 2008

Courage in the face of fear

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

I went to the Washington State Presidential primary caucuses yesterday, which put my brain into history mode. It struck me again that great leaders stand their ground under fire, at times even under persecution. It’s not what they promise; it’s what they do when their mettle is tested. Great leaders face daunting challenges with resolve and inspire others with hope for a better future.

So I began to wonder, what is it about George W. Bush’s war in Iraq that doesn’t pass the sniff test for any but the most reactionary of noses? President Bush has been pestered, ridiculed, and chastised by many pundits and leaders, and in addition he has lost about two-thirds of the country’s support in pursuit of his foreign policy in Iraq. He has been under fire to say the least. He has asked us to aspire to a safer world and freedom for the Iraqi people. Why isn’t he seen by most as a great leader for sticking to his guns for this admirable intention? Without resorting to the same old arguments on this topic, I see two answers of use for all leaders.

The first and simplest answer is, the war in Iraq isn’t over. It hasn’t been won by anyone’s accounting. And although the mission objectives have been ambiguous and fluid over the past four years, not even the current mission objectives have been achieved with any sense of finality. So it is fair to say that judging his leadership on Iraq might be premature.

But there is a deeper answer to why George W. Bush isn’t seen as a great leader on this topic. The primary verb in leadership is “inspire.” President Bush has used 9/11 – one moment of pain in our recent history – to declare a military campaign to root out the source of evil. That’s a flawed promise because the source of 9/11 is essentially one man, who still lives, breathes, and communicates effectively with his followers. It is a flawed promise because the root of this evil is so wide and so pervasive, we would have to kill or subdue everyone who harbors ill will against the United States, which in turn will create more who harbor ill will against us in a never ending cycle of violence.

Leaders who elevate fear and safety as a rationale for action always create more doubt than motion. Why? Because whenever a leader elevates fear and safety as a primary concern to give impetus to an agenda, there are many already willing to face that fear and already have another agenda. Leaders who proclaim “I have the answer” instill either doubt or set themselves up for a reckoning later. Leaders who on the other hand challenge us to build or attain something and say “I believe we can do this,” are inspiring. Though we might fail, there is more motion than doubt. Lincoln, FDR, and JFK understood this. But it doesn’t require a president or brilliant orator to understand this – any decent parent understands this.  As leaders, we have the opportunity to demonstrate courage in the face of fear.  When we step up to do so, we lead others to do the same.

George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was not courage in the face of fear. It was a simplistic response to a violent act fueled by misplaced hatred and misguided political objectives. And in the process, we became the thing we sought to punish. Worse yet, President Bush created a divisive, exclusionary principle: if you are not with us you are against us. A great leader seeks inclusion – because by bringing people together, we build a better place.

In response to 9/11, a great leader would have challenged us to first forgive those assailants who were manipulated into suicide and then challenged the world to join us in building a deeper understanding of one another while bringing the principal hate mongerers to justice. Had President Bush done this, we would have collectively held him in high esteem as a great leader. Instead, his approach of elevating our fears, focusing our actions on a false sense of security, and forcing his agenda through the use of executive power has left us with a feeling of doubt and anguish.

A fine lesson for anyone in a leadership role.

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