Leadership Moves

“Obama Seeks Way to Acknowledge Protestors Without Alienating Ayatollah.”  Brilliant leadership move!  Why?


What powerful leaders do is create a larger context for interpreting situations and events for the sake of new possibilities to emerge. Context helps us manage a myriad of information by allowing us to determine what information is relevant in a given situation.  Much of the news coming from Iran has been targeted on the message that America is meddling in the affairs of Iran.  The underlying message to the Iranian people by their leaders has been “don’t blame this upheaval on us or the current Iranian government, blame the unrest on interference by the Americans.”  So what did President Barack Obama do in a potent response?  He created a much larger context by which to interpret the actions (or inactions) of the Obama administration. 


The first sentence of the Washington Post article on the front page right at the top of the paper’s crease (for those of you who still like the feel of newsprint in your hands) reads,  


“The political unrest in Iran presents the Obama administration with a dilemma: keep quiet to pursue a nuclear deal with Ayotallah Ali Khomeni, the country’s supreme leader, or heed calls to respond more supportively to the protesters there- and risk alienating the Shiite cleric.”  


A rich and larger context was created here that allows us to infer many things at once—first, and most obvious, Obama draws our attention to what is relevant in an American response. He tells us he wants to respond to the events in Iran but he is thoughtful in his actions and wishes to make the right response.  President Obama is doing here what so many of our leaders in organizations forget to do, he is revealing his thinking—a key leadership move by which a leader engages his audience to think with him.


Secondly, he is broadcasting a message that says to everyone, “look we care about what is going on with the people of Iran AND we also care about a bigger concern, the safety of the planet when it comes to the threat of nuclear weapons.”  He is sending a direct message to the supreme leader of Iran letting him know, “we don’t intend to meddle in your internal affairs because something larger is at stake—world security.”  Thus, Obama is shifting the context to something much larger and even more important to all of us.  Our shared vision of a world at peace and free from the threat of nuclear weapons comes to the forefront while the concern for the Iranian people is also acknowledged.  


Whether it be the environment, the economy, poverty, education, health care, or within your family, your work or your community, leadership is about making intentional moves to act for the sake of creating a better future for all.  By signaling his intentions, Obama bought some time and deferred responsibility for what is going on in Iran back to the Iranian leaders.   What we can learn from this one leadership move of President Obama is how to recognize and shift a context (Principle Number Five of Leadership Alchemy, see Leadership Excellence article April 2009.)   

You don’t have to be the designated leader or the positional leader or even think of yourself as a leader to lead.  Our breakdown in leadership is that there are too many people telling too many stories about what is wrong and what is not working instead of pointing to the possibilities for what might work. Leadership moves can be small insightful conversational contributions that help others see something they did not see before or they can be big innovations that change the way we all work and live.  They are not patterned, habitual and “wing it” kinds of actions but intentional moves that create an opening for a multitude of other interpretations to show up and lead to positive intentional action.    


So the next time you are faced with a decision that impacts others, take a good look at the context you are creating and shift up!