A shot from Tripoli last night. Can you see the American flag in the background? Can you sense how remarkable this is? Do you think this would have happened if this had been an American led project? Or if we had put boots on the ground? Obviously, I cannot know for sure, but I sincerely doubt it.
"We are sort of leading from behind," someone on the NSA staff told a reporter shortly after the operation in Libya began. This comment outraged the right. It was seen as typical liberal abdication of America's rightful and required role of leading from the front, of taking charge of any operation we engaged in. It was nice to have NATO in Afghanistan, but, as always, we were in charge. And our forces were not blended with NATO forces; they were held separately. After all, we're the Big Dog in Town. No one has the military capacity that we do. It is not only natural that we lead; it is our obligation.
I was thrilled with this approach, when Obama first described it, and we rolled it out in the early days of the air campaign. To begin with, we did the brunt of the fighting. After all, we have the vast supply of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which were needed up front. And we had the most aircraft immediately available. So we led the early fighting and set the parameters and conditions for the air campaign going forward. And then, as Obama had promised, we pulled back.
This was an historical first. We started the project, but made it clear from the beginning that we expected NATO, and specifically, the other NATO countries to finish the job. As a result, an unusual number of other countries stepped up to the plate. My stepmother is Norwegian, and I told her how thrilled I was when a squadron of Norwegian fighter planes (six F-16s) were flying their aircraft across Europe to join the effort. A small number of planes in the total package, but a very big deal for Norway. Other small countries (Sweden, Canada, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Belgium, Holland, Jordan, UAE, in addition to Britain, France and Italy) were able to participate in meaningful ways, and despite the unexpected length of the effort, they appear to have finished the job.
What does it mean to lead from behind? How does it work? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach? First of all, a quote from the ancient Chinese master, Lao Tsu:
"When the Master leads, and the job is done, the people are satisfied and say, 'See, we have done the work ourselves.'"
Leading from behind is not off camera, back room manipulation. There is nothing tricky or evasive. Nor is this an effort to unfairly pass the buck, by pushing the real work onto someone else's shoulders. The leader establishes the principles, values, and central intentions of the work. He/she sets the initial conditions and the framework. This is leadership as "space making" - creating a kind of container or space where extraordinary action and accomplishment is possible, often including multiple and sometimes conflicting parties.
This is coalition-building, certainly. But brilliantly done, as I believe Obama demonstrated in this Libyan effort, something else happens. The engaged coalition becomes, in effect, a learning organization. They can learn, adapt, change and grow as conditions change. There is some absolute clarity (prevent a humanitarian disaster) and some real ambiguity (force Qaddafi out, but no boots on the ground, and we need to stay in accord with the UN Resolution). This is very hard to pull off. If anyone out there reading this has had the great good fortune to work on a truly high performing team, you will know what I am describing. When a team joins together voluntarily to accomplish a mission that is highly meaningful to each and every member of the team, the team "learns how to learn", develops resilience and staying power, and unsuspected wells of creative capacity.
When you have been on such a team, nothing else quite satisfies. It gives us a fierce confidence that people can work together at the highest levels of group capacity, and beyond, and that miracles are, in fact, possible. I think this is what we have just witnessed, because there is a very important addition to the NATO group that was always intended by the President to be the central player on the team, and that was the Libyan people. This revolution only deserved to happen if the Libyan people, mostly by themselves, could make it happen, mostly, if not entirely on their own. This win belongs to the Libyan people. That's why it has a chance.
If we had led the show from the front, this would not have been the case. And it could have been a disaster. Some groups don't coalesce. They never make it to "takeoff speed", and they fail. And that's the downside. Once again, like with Bin Laden, the President took a big risk. And it worked.