"Obama's Wars": What Leaders Can Learn About Handling Staff Dissent

Last Updated Sep 23, 2010 6:24 PM EDT

I didn't know Barack Obama had it in him, but in Bob Woodward's new book "Obama's Wars", the president comes across as a tough-as-nails CEO when handling the military and other advisers opposed to his desire to pull troops out of Afghanistan. Both the New York Times and Washington Post just published excerpts from the book, which is scheduled to be released Sept. 27.
Put yourself in this scenario as a CEO facing a major decision. You, the chief executive, are committed to one course of action, in Obama's case to draw down American military from Afghanistan. The only question is how. Meanwhile, your top strategists, in this case the military brass and intelligence leadership, are arguing for an increase in troop commitment and spending, not less.

How do you handle the discord? How do you drive your decision down the organization?

Obama takes an approach that should be of interest to any CEO or manager of a potentially rebellious unit.

  1. After dozens of meetings to hear opinions and alternatives, Obama announces he has made a decision, which represents a compromise: a pullout within two years after a short-term surge of 30,000 troops.
  2. He explains his decision. In rejecting the military's request for 40,000 troops and a no-end-in-sight mission, Obama declares, "I'm not doing 10 years. I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."
  3. He sets clear, realistic expectations. The withdrawal will not be accompanied with claims of victory or failure. "Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint," he says, according to Woodward. "It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."
  4. The military delays, and continues to lobby for an increased military presence. Obama grows frustrated, finally demanding, "Why do we keep having these meetings?"
  5. Obama tells General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] ... unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011."
  6. Obama's final six-page plan takes the unusual step, according to Woodward, "of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do."
The withdrawal is now underway.

Here's what I liked about the president's approach. Obama let everyone have their say, made a decision, stated it firmly and with clarity. He gave his reasoning. He then focused his attention on execution, not letting the team go down rat holes of second guessing. His final directive included not only the marching orders, but a clear description of what would not be acceptable -- a pointed slap at an openly skeptical military.

So put your CEO hat on and tell us what you think of how Obama handled this situation. Remember, the president could not fire all who disagreed with his approach, even as some of their actions seemed less than supportive. He had to work with what he had, for the most part, and deliver results.

Did he do a good management job?

(Photo courtesy the White House)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.