Watching events in the Ukraine unfold, particularly America’s handling of Russia’s move into Crimea, I couldn’t help but notice that we’ve been here before. The Obama administration has been tested time and again by aggressive foreign leaders, and I can certainly see why.
Somehow – and I’m having a little trouble wrapping my arms around this – the President of the United States and the leader of the free world doesn’t appear to have a solid understanding of how to influence the behavior of strong opponents and achieve diplomacy. And I say that with all due respect and humility, of course.
Imagine my surprise. I’m sitting there, in front of the TV, listening to all sorts of smart and experienced political and defense strategists provide advice on what President Obama should be doing. And, lo and behold, it’s more or less the same advice I would have given him. And I’ve never spent a day in politics or in the military.
I did grow up on the streets of Brooklyn in the 60s, but aside from a touch of PTSD, I wouldn’t exactly call that a war zone. But I digress.
As it turns out, the strategy of influencing opposing world leaders is surprisingly analogous to the strategy I learned as a senior executive in the high-tech industry, negotiating high-stakes business and patent licensing deals with the likes of Samsung, Toshiba, IBM, and dozens of other large companies.
Maybe countries weren’t at stake, but companies were.
All I know is, the similarities are striking. So whether you’re a business leader or a political one, here are a four basic lessons you should know backwards and forwards before getting yourself into a position of power, if for no other reason than on the outside chance your opponents might actually know what they’re doing.
Lesson #1: Talk is cheap.
Never, ever threaten what you’re not absolutely prepared to carry out. If you’re going to draw a red line in the sand and say, “See that red line? Don’t cross it or else,” then there had better be an “or else,” and it better have some serious teeth that cause your adversary great pain. If not, it’s just an empty threat and you should never have issued it to begin with.
Truth is, once you let that genie out of the bottle, you can never put it back. If you threaten and fail to follow through, that’s it; you’re done. You may just as well pack up your cajones and go home because you clearly have no guts, your credibility is shot, and everyone knows it.
Better yet, don’t threaten; just act. In the Ukrainian crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t said much. He hasn’t broadcast his intent. He hasn’t issued any threats. He has simply acted decisively. If you have a track record of acting under certain conditions, that in itself will give adversaries pause before crossing you in the future. Threats aren’t necessary.
Lesson #2: There is no diplomacy without leverage.
If you’ve demonstrated in the past that you talk, threaten, and don’t back it up with action, then you have no leverage. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Talk softly and carry a big stick.” That’s how diplomacy works. This administration doesn’t appear to understand that.
The only way to get opposing leaders to do your bidding is to make sure they know that, by going up against you, they face far greater risks than the rewards they hope to gain. Raising your opponent’s risk above his perceived reward is the only way to gain leverage. Without that, there’s no motivation for diplomacy.
Also, never give up leverage unless you’re getting something of equal or greater value in return. When President Obama first took office, he gave up leverage by initiating the ‘reset’ with Russia, and Putin’s aggression in Crimea is a direct result.
Lesson #3. Preparation is key.
If you react too quickly, that’s a sign, perhaps of fear. If you wait too long to act, that’s also a sign, probably of indecision. In both cases, you’re reactive, not proactive. That’s either because your intelligence is not as effective as it should be or you haven’t anticipated and prepared for the situation at hand. Either way, that’s not acceptable.
Leaders have to know in advance what opposition leaders think and feel. What motivates them? What’s in it for them? Preparation is key to making smart decisions that achieve desired outcomes, especially against strong, experienced opposing leaders.
Lesson #4. Experience is the best teacher.
We learn primarily through experience, through trial and error. The decisions leaders make in times of crisis, when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, require self-confidence, gut instincts, and courage. And those qualities are far more likely to be found in those who have been there before than those who are new to the game, no matter how smart they are.
Successfully influencing the actions of worthy adversaries you have no real control over requires a deep understanding of human behavior. It requires the ability to size up and anticipate how your opponent will react to opportunities and threats, risks and rewards, fear and doubt. And that comes primarily from interacting with and observing people in the real world. It comes from knowing people and knowing what makes them tick.
The higher the stakes, the tougher the opponent, the more important experience becomes. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’d damn well better hire people that do and trust their judgment. If, on the other hand, you surround yourself with likeminded yes-men with similarly limited experience, I don’t care if you’re running a company or a nation, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, former senior executive, columnist and author of the upcoming book, “Real Leaders Don’t Follow." Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting where he advises executives and business leaders on strategic matters. Contact Tobak.