Persuasion Lessons from Three Leaders

3 Heads Karzai Abdullah Obama

The easiest writing in the Blogosphere is anything that snarks the President, or indeed any senior leader, entrepreneur, or risk taker.  They are busy as hell, working with incomplete information against ridiculous deadlines, wrestling with both known and unknown competition toward a goal seen only dimly.  News flash:  Leaders make mistakes!  So, analysis and criticism is one of those safe and pleasant comforts, bought and paid for by the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of others whilst you sit in front of the screen, hooting in your underwear, like an adolescent owl.  Let’s at least see if we can learn from observation.

Obama entered the scene offering not only Change We Can Believe In, but the promise of Another Great Communicator with skills forged and honed in the heat and pressure of Chicago community politics.  Yet, he quite nearly lost Health Care Reform with a filibuster safe Senate and a secure majority in the House.  He has essentially continued the Hated George W. Bush War on Terror all the while zigging and zagging through interrogation, trials, troop levels, and, of course, an Afghan Surge.  And while maintaining Bad Bush, because he zigged and zagged he gained precious little support from his natural allies and disdain from his adversaries who actually agree with him.

I assert that the Administration is lousy at persuasion, at using communication to change how freely choosing Other Guys think, feel, or act.   The Obama Administration continues to make Persuasion 101 mistakes, missteps, and misjudgments.  Consider, now, the latest bad example:  Hamid Karzai.  The New York Times explains under the headline, U.S. Now Trying Softer Approach Toward Karzai.

WASHINGTON — After more than a year of watching America’s ability to influence President Hamid Karzai ebb, Obama administration officials now admit privately that the tough-love approach Mr. Obama adopted when he came to power may have been a big mistake.

While I am not privy to the White House Cool Table and assuming that “tough-love” means the same thing to Obama, the New York Times, and me, let me analyze this.  Tough Love can be understood as a For Me? persuasion play – the simultaneous application of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, to achieve a desired TACT.  Executed without finesse, nuance, or subtlety, For Me? is nothing but Power.  Power Reinforcement Theory simply imposes the source’s will upon the receiver’s action through pain and pleasure, just like the Dom with the Sub in a BDSM relationship.  Assuming the source does have the proper rewards and punishments and applies them correctly, For Me? as pure power works.

Obviously, in a cooperative BDSM drama, all parties agree on the carrots and the sticks and as long as everyone behaves properly, the scene comes to a happy ending.  But, when, for example, the receiver has access to other consequences or brings an entirely different set of TACTs to the situation, the source power play with Reinforcement will fail.

This seems to be the case in the scene between Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai.  And, instead of achieving the happy ending, it appears that Obama managed to do nothing but elicit Reactance from Mr. Karzai with his deliberate attempts to unfairly restrict the freedom of Karzai’s choices and actions.  Karzai responded emotionally and aggressively, showing clear signs of Don’t Tread On Me, the mark of Reactance.  That’s what you get when you really don’t control the Other Guy.  Your Reinforcement Power fails to produce Change We Can Believe In, but rather, Wow Where Did That Come From?

Obama, the Next Great Communicator, decided to choose among his vast array of communication skills the For Me? play with the Power Setting on High.  Please recall the Rule:  Power Corrupts Persuasion.  Do you see?

Now contrast Obama’s Afghan Problem with another player also facing the Afghan Problem, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.  You should recall that Abdullah ran a serious campaign for the Afghan Presidency against Karzai, but the election was marred with serious vote fraud.  Abdullah decided not to contest the election fraud and to not run in a required second round, thus giving the Presidency to Karzai.  Abdullah had power plays to run and could have created a People in the Streets Revolution, but deliberately chose against this power play.  He has an old head with long memories and has seen the destructive long term effects of power plays in Afghan politics and society.  Abdullah, for now anyway, is persisting with persuasion plays, using words to influence rather than pure power or even power veiled behind persuasion.

Let’s consider the Rules as we look at these three men.

If You Cannot Succeed, Don’t Try! sounds facile and cute.  Anyone with any sense who knows they cannot succeed will not try, but how can you know you won’t succeed?  When you can answer that question correctly most of the time, you know something about Persuasion and if you can’t, you don’t.  Clearly, Mr. Obama has plunged ahead in his Presidential politics believing he could succeed, when often he not only failed, but made things worse.  Contrast that with the actions of Dr. Abdullah who decided he could not succeed and eased back, waiting for another moment.

All Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not is another facile sounding truism – of course persuasion is strategic; you don’t do it just for the hell of it.  However, attempting persuasion with the strategic goal of checking off an item on your Presidential To-Do List is strategic, but not Strategic.  Mr. Obama seems to be looking at the next hill rather than the capitol (missing Leonard Cohen’s pointed song, first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin).  Again, contrast him with either Karzai and Abdullah who seem to be playing for larger stakes and deeper change in their Strategies.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.  In these big instances, I feel nervously aware that Mr. Obama seems to be thinking through his desires rather than the Other Guy’s desires.  Of course, it is Obama’s desires that trigger everything.  He sets the goals.  But persuasion is about the means and that means the Other Guy.  Both Karzai and Abdullah operate in extremely dangerous situations and both have avoided death through great luck, great planning, and great reactions.  They seem to have better radar about the Other Guy compared to the relatively younger and considerably less experienced Obama.  Stated more crudely, they are schooling him.

All People Always Resist Significant Change.  Mr. Obama appears to understand this Rule as meaning, So Get The Hammer, rather than trying to find ways of reducing:  1) the Other Guy’s capacity to resist, 2) the significance of the Change, or 3) making the Change feel more like doing something familiar rather than something new.  Realize, we are still aiming at Significant Change, a Change We Can Believe In (even with that awful unfulfilled preposition, Gadzooks!).  It’s a big deal.  But we can influence the perception of the Significant Change.  This Rule demands finesse, nuance, and subtlety – the Nudge, right?  Isn’t the Administration prideful as the Nudge Network?  Where is he Nudging with Afghanistan and Karzai?

Finally, Power Corrupts Persuasion.  Since the campaign and taking office, I’ve noted Obama’s unfortunate and growing preference for power over persuasion.  He holds many large Sticks.  So powerful.  So quick.  So easy.  Don’t spend a lot of time studying the Other Guy.  Don’t worry over plans.  Just pick up a Stick, swing It, and see what you get.  Then either swing It harder or softer or pick a new Stick.  The corruptive effect of power on persuasion in this case is more compelling because the farther away you are from the consequences of power, the more attractive it becomes.  Both Karzai and Abdullah, as noted, face the ultimate consequence – violent death – and both play with power more carefully.  By contrast, Obama, while also facing this risk, clearly does not face violent death at the hands of a political adversary during a town hall meeting.  If it doesn’t work out, Obama can pick up the ball and go home, left to face American politics.  If it doesn’t work out for Karzai or Abdullah, the shot doesn’t cut to a political rally, but rather to their funeral.

Obama is making young guy persuasion errors.  He thinks he’s figured out the Other Guy, when he’s only figured out himself.  He thinks there’s nuance in power.  He thinks he’s got a plan when he’s got a to-do list.

Any of this sound familiar in your own experience?

But, he is in the game doing the best while I’m just sitting here hooting, hopefully with some insight, but hooting nonetheless.