The Syrian crisis: Study leadership decisions not leadership styles

The complexities of leadership make assessments of a leader’s style less effective than assessments of a leader’s most critical decisions and dilemmas

The story of Syria’s internal conflicts and external attempts at intervention remains complex and obscure. I want to advocate its analysis through a study of leadership dilemmas and decision-making.

My executive students are familiar with the principle through applying it to current leadership cases. Here is how the approach may be effective in understanding some of the complexities of the Syrian crisis [as of September 2013].

Media treatments

Media treatments are arriving at a narrative or interpretive story of events in Syria. In the narrative, the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad faces increasing attempts to overthrow his regime by a complex set of internal interests. The American President Barack Obama would like to intervene, preferably with support from the international community. The Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that the forces opposing Assad are waging war against a legally constituted leader.

The nature of narrative

Narrative by its nature is interpretative. It implies a belief in a story. I like to think of the story as a map or interpretation of a real-world reality. The Russian, American and Syrian maps differ. The real-world events involve thousands of people being killed, millions being displaced. If the narratives are maps, the conflict is the territory represented in the maps.

Dilemmas

News stories provide us with the maps. One way to examine them is to consider evidence of the most important dilemmas facing leaders. That way we glimpse the leadership processes better. For example, an excellent analysis in the Wall Street journal [updated and uploaded 15 Sept 2013] gives a Western map of current events. It also suggests the dilemmas facing President Obama.

Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place…

[D]uring a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.

Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.

Map-reading

Before I can assess or ‘map-test’ the ‘rightness’ of decisions, I need to ‘map-read’ thoroughly. The story suggests a critical dilemma. Mr Obama [it says] wants to reduce the U.S.’s role as global cop, but finds himself ‘lurching into launching a strike against Syria’. The dilemma, and the Presidential decision-making start to resolve with ‘the unintended outcome’ of the public remark by Secretary of State John Kerry and the reaction by his Russian counterpart.

Map-testing

This interpretation of events can be tested. Kerry’s statement is the most public. That it was ad-libbed and not offical policy is a piece of map-making or interpretation by the WSJ. Mr Lavrov’s reply is reported but not public. Subsequent events give it, and the narrative or map some plausibility.

Map-making

The events may have helped President Obama re-make his map to increase the chances of a non-military approach to Syria. The debate continues whether this is ‘true’; whether it was influenced by the decision of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to withhold support for military action; whether The Russian position and that of President Bashar al-Assad are to be trusted. But these become speculations. By sticking with dilemmas and decisions we avoid the morass we find ourselves in when dealing with such speculation.

I have chosen to examine the dilemmas facing President Obama. A richer picture (or map) emerges only after examination of other maps, other decisions, other leaders.

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