It was his defining leadership moment as commander-in-chief. Flanked by members of his top staff, President Obama sat in the Situation Room Sunday afternoon intensely viewing live video of the commando raid on the compound of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. He did not see the fatal shot that fell the architect of the 9/11 attacks but received the “Geronimo” signal, code for mission accomplished. The president would make the historic announcement of bin Laden’s capture and killing to 56 million television viewers who will certainly remember that 10-minute broadcast for years to come.
Obama was able to achieve a decade-old national security objective, bringing closure to a nation changed by that fateful day when hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon and took some 3,000 innocent lives. His critics have often derided his management style as being “tentative” or “leading from behind.” But recent developments have seemingly vindicated a president known for detail-oriented pragmatism. His oversight of this daring maneuver offers a teachable moment for leaders seeking to complete missions, both complex and treacherous.
Clearly define your mission – even if you do it years in advance. The best leaders set long-term goals tied to a specific agenda. Obama stated that keeping America safe was his No. 1 priority and set his sights on neutralizing bin Laden from the beginning. In fact, President Obama first presented the idea of bringing the leader of al-Qaida to justice as Candidate Obama. In an October 2008 debate with Republican nominee John McCain, he maintained that “if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida.” One of his first acts in the Oval Office was directing CIA Director Leon Panetta to make the killing or capture of bin Laden “the top priority of our war against al-Qaida even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.”
Gain actionable intelligence. Too often, entrepreneurs and professionals make decisions without gaining sufficient, qualitative data. As a result, some tend to engage in reactionary responses due to financial desperation or competitive and market pressures. Take a chapter from Obama. After years of intelligence-gathering by CIA operatives and briefings from top military officials, he was first told of a possible lead last August. He persisted: “It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action.”
Seek input from top advisers. It doesn’t pay to play lone wolf. Gaining divergent views from experienced managers and weighing multiple scenarios are vital to the planning process. Moreover, it will likely keep you from producing career-killing or business-wrecking mistakes. Over the past six weeks, Obama held five national security meetings to fully discuss intelligence related to the compound and a possible raid. He conducted these sessions by receiving loads of input from top advisers — and actually listening to them. In Bob Woodward’s exhaustive account of military and diplomatic policy-making in the White House, Obama’s Wars, the president maintained that “a spirit of challenging our assumptions” was important for creating effective strategies and avoiding failed outcomes. He added: “I’m a big believer in continually updating our analysis and relying on a constant feedback loop. Don’t bite your tongue. Everybody needs to say what’s on their mind.”
Know what’s at stake. Whether running a mom-and-pop or a multinational corporation, your decisions affect the well-being those in your command. Obama has repeatedly stated that he wrestles with placing young men and women in harm’s way. Leadership, especially at the highest levels, require clear and ongoing communication of the mission’s objectives, the organization’s role and stakes involved. And make sure you properly train troops for the task. For example, the US special ops team practiced mock drills for several weeks prior to the raid. As a result, the 40-minute “targeted assault” produced not one military casualty. Bottom line: Put your people first.
Always keep your game face. Don”t display emotions or engage in actions that spook the troops or betray your mission. The president made his final decision to move forward with the raid at 8:20 a.m. on Friday, April 29th. Over a 72-hour period, “No Drama” Obama carried the secret as he consoled tornado victims, delivered a college commencement address and cracked jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner. (One of his ultimate power moves: Not only did the president slice-and-dice businessman and leading birther activist Donald Trump during his humor-laden appearance at the correspondents’ shindig, he pre-empted the conclusion of The Donald’s TV show, Celebrity Apprentice, with the bin Laden announcement.)
Remain positive and presidential. Great leaders are great communicators. Although Obama achieved the mission his Republican predecessor started, he delivered remarks without a hint of politics or partisanship. (In fact, the next day, he brought the Democratic and Republican leadership together at the White House.) He used his brief, 10-minute speech to share the significance of the moment, manage expectations about terrorism, promote religious tolerance and unify the nation.
Remember, there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to the development and execution of comprehensive strategies. Detailed analysis and planning usually yield the best results. Obama’s m.o. offers a viable, disciplined approach to follow. It may help you emerge triumphant— with the least amount of casualties.