President Obama has recently been faced with his biggest foreign policy test to date—the Crimea and the Ukraine. The former is now firmly in Russian hands and the latter knows there is very little that would stop a Russian invasion if Putin continues his annexing ways.
Many pundits attribute the president’s rather vacuous sanctions so far to a lack of leadership experience and a naïve, ideological approach to foreign policy—he just doesn’t understand Putin. This explanation seems right at first glance.
A more momentous explanation goes deeper.
As an organizational psychologist and management consultant, I have interviewed thousands of leaders.
In particular, my research over the last 10 years has focused on what causes leaders to fail. I believe the president suffers from a breached core. By this I mean his inner person that thinks, feels, believes, and forms self-authored opinions is faulty. As a result, our country’s viability and the world’s stability are at risk.
Many Americans reveled in the president’s soaring aspirations which he expressed during the 2008 presidential campaign and in the opening months of his presidency.
Somewhere along the way a barely perceptible change occurred. He seemed dismissive of the people he needed to implement a bipartisan agenda.
We noticed a hint of arrogance even in the early months of his first term.
We remember that presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, when the president’s thinly veiled impatience at having to be on stage with his inferior to justify his policies blossomed into hubris.
It has been my observation that power, influence, wealth, fame, etc., place an individual at great risk.
Often these forces change a person for the worse, particularly when there is an absence of guard rails to contain and hold these forces in check.
We’ve seen the guy at work, who was a perfectly likeable and competent individual, but over time, he had a bigger job, more money, loftier title, etc., and he changed. He became arrogant and began to believe his subordinates existed to serve him and to accomplish his agenda.
Unregulated power does that to us. It breaches our inner person, and with no wall of protection, false beliefs drift into our psyche like dandelions on a breezy spring day.
We start to believe things that are, in reality, not true. “I’m the smartest person in the room.” “I don’t have to follow the normal rules.” “Anyone who opposes me should be automatically disparaged.” If any of these sound familiar, it’s because we’ve seen the president exhibit any number of these false beliefs in recent years.
I like to think of rationalize as “rational lies.” When we lie to ourselves, we justify why something we know not to be true is, through some tortured reasoning, justifiable. “If you like your doctor or your healthcare plan, you can keep them,” is ok to say because, after all, these people are going to get “better health insurance.”
Let’s go back to the very dangerous world in which we live and the cold-blooded, calculating foe that Obama faces.
Surefire signs of a breached core are arrogance, narcissism and dismissiveness. While these are troubling, a more dire consequence for a leader with a significant flaw in his or her core is a lack of courage.
Don’t we feel a bit embarrassed when we see the president trying to confront Vladimir Putin, who brushes aside any threats the president makes.
Putin laughed at the sanctions Obama imposed and reciprocated in kind almost as a parody. Images come to mind…bully on the playground, etc.
Obama is a man who lacks foreign policy experience, but more importantly, he lacks foreign policy courage.
Courage emanates from resolute beliefs that reside in our core. Absent any deeply held beliefs and convictions, and the courage that results from them, we become tentative, or worse, expedient. We then want to just get along with our adversary.
The person without authentic courage pontificates and makes threats that everyone recognizes as hollow. Obama’s threats sounds like Syria all over again—red lines to not cross without any real, substantive consequences.
Courage never exists in a vacuum. It results from our internalized beliefs and convictions about how our lives and our country’s influence should best be directed toward some noble end. Courage is choosing to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Courageous individuals are people not caught up in their own importance or presuming that they’re somehow more virtuous or impervious than others.
The president needs to lead from within—he must lead from an intact core. He is in position to have a great impact upon history.
Most leaders headed toward derailment because of a breached core continue down that terrible path to loss of influence.
We can only hope that the president will abandon his concerns about political optics and lead us to a profoundly courageous and noble resolution of a hugely important moment in history.
Tim Irwin, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist, speaker, and author of the new book, "Impact: Great Leadership Changes Everything" (BenBella Books, February 4, 2014). He has consulted with a number of America's most well-known and respected companies and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.