3 Leadership Lessons from the Iraq War

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I started writing this month’s eNewsletter article (“Building a Team Against the Problem”) before realizing that this month was the “end” of the Iraq war, with the troops (well, some of them) coming home. In reflecting on that war, there are three leadership lessons that stand out and fit with this theme:

First, Build a Team Against the Problem: There is a stark and important contrast between the very short “Gulf War” led by George H.W. Bush (“H.W.”) 20 years ago and the “Iraq War” led by his son, George W. Bush (“W”) which has lasted over 8 years with over 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead, over 40,000 seriously injured (not counting mental injuries) and over 100,000 Iraqi’s dead. “H.W.” was an experienced diplomat who put a great deal of effort into building a true coalition of nations to carry out the Gulf war, which stopped Saddam Hussein in his tracks and successfully contained him. “W,” on the other hand, took the opposite approach of refusing to listen to the prior coalition (not even consulting his father) and when nations such as France wouldn’t join him he changed the name of “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” in the White House dining room. Without a team, the United States became isolated in the world and seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Second, Don’t Think in Terms of Villains: International problems are much more complex than heroes and villains. “W” thought in terms of villains and targeted Saddam Hussein to be eliminated – a major step in changing the culture of conflict in the world by justifying the elimination of one sovereign leader by another country. When Saddam was finally captured and executed, it was barely a drop inthe bucket of the Iraq War. Yet the international tone had changed, with Al Queda and its sympathizers seeing Americans as people who could be targeted and eliminated. We need to remember the beheadings of Americans during the early years of the war and the rapid growth of anti-American radicals in the Middle East. When leaders speak in terms of pure villains, it tends to change theculture into one of war at all levels of society. Even “W” said he realized this many years later.

Third ,Don’t See Yourself as a Hero: During the war planning, Donald Rumsfeld (“W”’s Secretary of Defense) saw himself as far superior to planners in the State Department and other agencies. He cut them out of the serious planning. He also envisioned the Iraqi people enthusiastically greeting the U.S. troops, even bringing them flowers. According to journalist Bob Woodward, when his teamheard from an analyst who said that there was a serious risk of chaos after theinvasion, he disdainfully dismissed that point of view and it wasn’t evenconsidered in the war planning.

“W” heroically declared “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier in one of the most dramatic mistaken judgments of the war. While he was acquired a second term as President, he soon thereafter was vilified as incompetent and earned one of the lowest ratings of a modern President before his term ended.

But thisis analysis is not just about “W.” President Obama – known to usually havecollaborative instincts – also appears to have succumbed to the allure ofworking as a hero without building a team. His healthcare initiative was his idea, although he tried to build a team around the specifics of the plan. But even Charles Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York, commented in 2009 that this was not a priority for over 70% of Americans, who were satisfied with their healthcare plans and much more concerned about their jobs and their homes.So this allowed Obama to become an easy “target of blame” and much of the past three years has been spent with “Obamacare” being attacked by Republicans without enthusiastic defense from Democrats (many of whom would have much preferred a “single payor” plan).

Likewise, President Obama found and executed Osama Bin Laden. The American public response was one of surprise and then almost disinterest. The Pakistani response was bitter resentment and relations have not been the same. Why, when this seemed so important years ago?

Today, we live in a world of participation decision-making. A leader can’t go it alone and expect the team to thank him. (It’s not surprising that the Occupy Wall Street movement made consensus decision-making a top priority.) You have to build a team against the problems that the team helps identify and the team helps implement. In the elections of 2012, hopefully we will learn these lessons and elect (at the city, state and federal levels) leaders who are team-builders more than self-identified heroes against all the self-identified villains.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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