Hearing dissent – the Obama strength

Strong leaders not only tolerate dissent – they crave it. They know good decisions come from listening to people who are telling them what they think, not those who are currying favor by telling them what they think theleader wants to hear. I learned that from my first mentor, Dr. Donald E. Walker, who at the time was president of Southeastern Massachusetts University – now the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

One of Don’s favorite sayings was “all of us are smarter than any of us.” He knew good ideas “bubbled up” from the bottom – they weren’t imposed from the top. He also knew that listening to someone doesn’t mean you agree with them, although this is one of the pitfalls of that approach. I can remember many times when faculty came to his office, Don lsitened quietly to what they had to say, and the very act of listening was assumed to mean he agreed with them. When he did something different than what they had advised they would call him a liar because they thought they had convinced him of their point of view. No – he was simply lsitening and weighing everyone’s point of view.

Does this guarantee good decisions? Of course not. No one’s going to bat 1,000. But it does mean you have a good chance of making good decisions more often than not and that’s really the most we can hope for from any leader. What we have had is a person similar to the person who preceded Don as president – a person who was “a decider” and who ruled with a iron hand, isolating himself from differing opinions. On the small scale of a single university this person acted just as Presidnt Bush has acted. He was a “bubble boy,” living inside an artificial world with a few trusted, like-thinking advisors. He loved the appearance of being strong and decisive, when really he was weak and incapable of weighing complex, conflicting ideas. And in both cases these leaders had no choice: They did not have the habit of listening to others and if they had listened they did not have the foundational tools to sort through multiple viewpoints and make good decisions.

Obama has both the habit and the tools. And as the New York Times pointed out in its editorial this morning, he is surrounding himself with bright, strong, dissenting voices – because he is a bright, self-confident voice himself who is not afraid to let others speak and has developed the habit not of simply tolerating dissent, but of hearing it and incorporating it in his decision making. The Times summed it up nicely in their opening paragraphs.

After years of watching American leadership crumble under the weight of bad decisions made in a White House shuttered to all debate, President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team is a relief.

Starting with the selection of Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former rival, as secretary of state, the president-elect has displayed his usual self-confidence. Declaring that he prizes “strong personalities and strong opinions,” Mr. Obama, who has limited foreign-policy experience, showed that he wants advisers with real authority who will not be afraid to disagree with him — two traits disastrously lacking in President Bush’s team.

Bush frequently indicated that he listened to his generals in the field. What he was doing is passing the buck downwards – saying, in effect, that he simply followed the orders he got from his generals. Last summer Obama met with General David Petraeus in Iraq. He lsitened and heard a lot of things that didn’t fit his preconceptions. In the end he thanked him for the frank presentation of his ideas, but made it clear that while he felt Petraeus was advising exactly as he should from his perspective and his position of leadership, the president would have a different task. The president would have to consider things that the general in the field – whoever it was – did not and should not consider. The president, therefore, would make his decision based on several opinions from different sources with different – legitimate – goals.

Obama’s selection of his cabinet indicates he is continuing to think and act this way. He doesn’t have to strut to the mcirophone and tell the world “I’m the decider.” He knows it. Any child should know it. But before he decides he has to be the listener, a role Bush never understood, bragging baout hiw his decisions were made from his gut and how he didn’t read the papers.


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