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The Real Bush Lesson

Many leaders, if not all, have a vision that they are committed to and that they work towards making a reality.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier in my life is that to be a truly effective leader, to have a hope of bringing about real and lasting change, one must also be committed to communicating and selling that vision.

As I read the news recently of the current taking of Iraq by Islamic militants it strikes me that it needn’t have been this way, and that this current tragedy is largely due to American involvement there in the past 15 years. I must admit to having a soft spot for President George W. Bush.  He has always struck me as being authentic and largely uncalculating, especially by the standards of a politician.  Like many Americans, I also like to root for the underdog and given his high degree of unpopularity, especially in the media, he fit into this category for me.  When the U.S., under his leadership, entered Iraq President Bush’s announced reasons was to liberate its people from a tyrant – one whom he feared had and was willing to use chemical weapons. Whatever anyone might think of those reasons, justified or not, honest or not, I think we can all now agree that the Bush administration didn’t effectively communicate a game plan as to how our intrusion into Iraq was to lead to that, or any good outcome.  Without a game plan for Americans to understand and to buy into, the Obama administration was free to choose its own plan, which was almost by definition going to be one that was uncoordinated and inconsistent with that of its predecessor.

Today’s reality cannot be what President Bush or President Obama had hoped for.  The citizens of Iraq, who tasted freedom and free elections, are now fighting for their lives and liberty again, and losing to a well-organized militia of Islamic extremists who hope to take control of Iraq.  There is surely plenty of blame to go around, but the source of the problem must lie with President Bush’s inability or unwillingness to communicate a well thought out game plan and obtain the necessary buy-in from the American public.  Had he done this, the situation would be quite different today.  If the public had repudiated his vision we’d either not have ever entered Iraq or he’d have been forced to modify or refine his vision further so as to sell it to his constituents.  Either way the situation would be dramatically different.  If it had been well communicated and received the needed buy-in from the public, President Obama would have had no choice but to follow through on the mandate, as it would have been the American mandate and not the Bush mandate.

I write this, not only because as an American it is so incredibly distasteful to have seen the efforts, lives and capital invested in Iraq and Afghanistan completely wasted, but because this lesson of a leader needing to communicate his vision to his constituency and get buy-in hits home for me personally too.  As I reflect on the Bush mistake here, I realize that I have made this same mistake in my career, and probably not only once.  I can recall having had a vision of how things in my business ought to go and  failing to adequately communicate that vision to my partners – co-workers and investors alike – and obtain their complete buy-in.  In those instances I suppose that I expected to be trusted, and probably mistook questioning as disloyalty or at least doubt and distrust.  I realize now that this was a giant mistake, and when I see this Iraq situation devolving as it is I can see that mistake so clearly and understand how terrible the consequences can become.  A particular leader, especially one whose term is limited, cannot make meaningful and lasting commitments without the necessary buy-in of his full constituency.  Foreign countries ought to consider this carefully when dealing with U.S. Presidents.  Leaders of all sorts seeking to execute their vision must also remind themselves of this.

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