Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Positional Perspective

The first half of my professional career was spent working as a staff person in small non-profits. Then one day I got a job as the Executive Director of one (I still wonder what those Board Members who hired me were thinking...WTF did I know?) It only took me a few weeks to feel the whiplash. It was embarrassing to recall all those years I'd spent criticizing leadership when it became clear that I hadn't known a damn thing about what they were dealing with. In retrospect, some of them still deserved criticism, but the truth is that mine had been mostly based on ignorance.

I think of that experience now whenever someone criticizes anyone in a leadership position - including politicians. My first thought is always to wonder what that leader might know that we don't.

Learning in retrospect about the process President Obama went through to make the decision to go after Osama Bin Laden has reminded us that there is very often work going on in the administration to which we are not privy. John Dickerson has written an interesting article about that.

In the timeline of the Bin Laden operation, we see just how closely the secret life of a president bumps against his public life. Though this operation was a special case, it puts in high relief an oft-forgotten truth about the presidency: The president is occupied by a lot more than the public can see.

This would seem obvious, but it gets lost in the endless assessments of whether the president is "showing leadership" on any given topic. Much of that coverage assumes a president with more time than he actually has, buffeted only by the facts we know.

During the period of intense focus on Bin Laden, other problems and issues the president was dealing with included: a government shutdown, a big speech on the budget, the start of his presidential campaign, the birth-certificate follies, and the bombing of Libya. Oh, and trying to "win the future."

As examples, Dickerson takes the 5 meetings Obama had with his National Security Council to discuss the Bin Laden mission and pairs them with his official schedule those days. Here's an example:

April 19: The president starts his day with an Easter Prayer Breakfast, then performs in a town hall with voters, followed by a meeting with various interested parties to discuss immigration. His official schedule ends with a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Its good to keep this kind of thing in mind - not to silence criticism, but to at least try to put things in perspective.

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