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?
Tenacity and clear-eyed focus are two traits that are in demand yet difficult to muster when crises are in abundance and everything seems to be a high priority. The attention span of the public is notoriously short, so political leaders who chase public opinion are tempted to rapidly shift priorities. Leaders do their organizations a real service when they articulate a clear vision and dedicate sufficient resources to its accomplishment. Not everything can be a top priority, and it is easy to give teams whiplash with rapidly changing objectives. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.
The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is yet to be told, but in his speech Sunday evening President Obama provided a clue when he said that bringing bin Laden to justice was the No. 1 priority of the U.S. intelligence community. When leaders state clear priorities, allocate funds, organize for the mission, and then train and equip experts to do the task, each step ratifies the objective and emphasizes its continuing importance. Organizations tend to do what the leader pays attention to, so questions from the executive suite and demands for regular updates on the subject also serve as motivation to keep an item on the front burner.
I often assert that in the public sector, geology is the appropriate metaphor for organizational change. Change usually comes as the result of intense pressure over long periods of time, and sometimes diamonds are the result. In this case, a decade of hard work and sacrifice interrupted by near misses and disappointments paid off. Supreme Court Justice William E. Gladstone said, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” but the outpouring of emotion after Sunday evening’s announcement is evidence that justice is also worth waiting for.
View all panel responses to the discussion The Osama bin Laden mission, and the art of persistence
George Reed | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM