Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Masters' Class in Both/And

I continually make the argument that Obama is an integral leader. This is a new concept for many of you, and I have decided not to write a long concept paper backgrounding and explaining this idea; rather when a particular situation, event or story seems to me to bring out integral leadership qualities, I try to point them out and include a brief explanation.

In the above video, Obama is answering very good questions, asked by a very smart facilitator, in front of a very smart audience: Haim Saban is the questioner; the setting is the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institute; the venue is the December 6-8, 2013 Saban Forum on US-Israeli Relations in a Dynamic Middle East; the speakers included the President, Secretary Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu; the audience - scholars, academics, Israeli politicians and press; the topics - the Nuclear Deal with Iran and Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations.

The Iranian question, particularly now that Netanyahu has called the interim deal "an historic mistake", is prone to black/white, either/or conversations, interpretations, and positions. So is the question of an Israeli-Palestinian two state peace agreement. Almost no difficult problems are ever resolved with this level of thinking.  "If I win, then you must lose" thinking and negotiating is always a power game: the winner wins by defeating the loser, or by convincing them that they will be defeated - so why not surrender now. When dealing with an enemy - declared and agreed to by both sides, most modern and very smart leaders stay with win/lose, either/or thinking. These leaders might be good at win/win negotiations in certain situations; but with a categorized and labeled enemy, this seems too dangerous, and we rely entirely on black/white. either/or.

An integral thinker always thinks in a both/and frame. That doesn't mean they can't take decisive action - this is the mistake the GOP made in the shutdown: they thought Obama would cave and negotiate, because that's what he always seemed to have done. The President didn't blink; the GOP were clobbered. An integral thinker and leader can act decisively, and does so with deep conviction and confidence; just because he or she looks at every situation initially as both/and, does not mean a time won't come when the and disappears, and decisive action is taken.

Watch the video. Try to notice all the ways the President demonstrates both/and thinking. And remember: Congress and Conservatives are going nuts that Obama is abandoning Israel, and folks in the press are just waiting to pounce. And remember that Bibi is soon to be up on the stage as well. Here are just a few both/ands that I will point to:
  • He criticizes his opponents' frame for the discussion as a choice between We Get Everything We Want/Iran Gets Nothing and War ("other options"). He says he would love it if those were the true alternatives; but they aren't. Iran is not going to give up everything and say the US and Israel are right. The 6 month freeze to test if a deal can be made is a real option that Iran will consider; which is why we have a preliminary agreement.
  • He counters the "Iran is always our enemy; the shift from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani means nothing" camp by quite gently making the case that even nations can change; that the election of Rouhani is not absolutely, yes or no a sea change in Iranian politics; but we lose little by testing to see whether it might be a change -if they might really be ready to rejoin the world as a normal participant.
  • He is pushed a couple of times to criticize Netanyahu, to draw lines between their positions. He doesn't do it; he keeps repeating that he has been in  regular communication with the Israeli PM, that each leader shares the very same commitment to Israel's security, and that their differences are tactical, not fundamental. We are inseparable friends; AND we disagree here on the tactics of dealing with Iran.
  • In the discussion on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, when faced with the problem of Gaza and Hamas - their unwillingness to come to the peace table - a problem which means "end of the line" to an either/or thinker, Obama goes both/and again - "We might have to do this in stages, where the deal is reached with the West Bank first, and then the youth in Gaza, seeing all the benefits and powerful economic growth happening in the West Bank,  will require their leaders to get the same deal for them." (or words to that effect).
Find your own examples. They show up in almost every answer the President makes. An astounding performance. This is not Munich-think/speak. This is what Jesus called us to be, peacemakers - developed enough to hold the contradictions and opposites gracefully, to create the safe spaces where the different parties to a conflict feel recognized and seen, and where they can talk together, in a mutual effort to find common ground.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
Matthew 5 (9)

Like Gandhi, King and Mandela, our President is a peacemaker.

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