Question: Finding and killing Osama bin Laden has required focus, patience and persistence from presidents and top government officials over a decade of repeated setbacks--qualities that are in short supply in a world where time horizons are becoming increasingly short. How can leaders resist the natural temptation to move on to other priorities when goals begin to look like they might be out of reach?
A leader’s priorities are defined by where they put their limited resources. The president did this one well: He gave this goal to one of his strong subordinates and told him this was a top priority. I don’t believe that finding bin Laden should have been the president’s top priority, even in the current war, but telling CIA director Leon Panetta that it was a top priority for him (and requesting regular updates) ensured that someone with responsibility and authority would stay focused on that goal, and would keep him informed.
Leaders manage multiple goals and priorities by delegating responsibility for meeting those goals to strong subordinate leaders, and then holding them accountable. Subordinate leaders will adjust their time, resources and priorities based on how often they are asked by their boss for specifics and updates. If the subordinate leader believes that a particular goal is out of reach, and/or is draining resources from other, more important or achievable objectives, a request for an adjustment of priorities or for additional resources should ensue.
Getting the subordinate leader’s personal buy-in and commitment to the goal is particularly important. I suspect that President Obama had no problem getting Leon Panetta’s buy-in for this particular goal, neither for the DoD forces who executed the mission that helped fulfill it.
View all panel responses to the discussion The Osama bin Laden mission, and the art of persistence
Bob Schoultz | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM