The quote that will probably get the most airplay from President Obama’s speech Monday night is the passage in which he said he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” The president, looking to find support among a skeptical American public for his decision to use force in Libya, argued that his actions were justified not only by what Moammar Gaddafi had already done, but by the further tragedies he was about to commit.
In my mind, however, the most memorable line was a different one. Toward the end of the president’s speech, he offered up a definition of leadership that is among the best I’ve recently heard. “Real leadership,” the president argued, “creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well.”
The president was speaking narrowly, of course, about working in concert with U.N. and NATO allies. He would go on to say that real leadership is also "to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs." An attempt to spell out his philosophy on using force—the Obama Doctrine, as some are calling it—the president outlined his belief that there are times when unilateral force is demanded, but many others in which a multilateral response is preferred. “Contrary to the claims of some,” he said, directly referencing the critics who initially questioned whether he was being forceful enough, “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves.”
Who knows how much the U.S. will actually step back and let NATO lead. The U.S. military's role in the air campaign is expansive, and "far deeper than discussed in public and more instrumental to the fight than was previously known," writes The New York Times. Of the 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles that have been fired since the campaign began, the Times reports, all but seven have been American weapons.
Still, Obama’s definition of “real leadership” is one that could use a broader examination on its merits alone. We often think of American might as the capability to meet our needs without help, win our battles with few allies, or stake out our positions with few in agreement. Our size and power have led us to conflate leadership with pioneering points of view, and authority with the belief that we must always run the show.
Taken even more broadly, the statement will resonate with anyone who’s noticed that these days leaders seem to be confused with those who will make the most provocative remark, take the most extreme position, or criticize his or her opponent most vigorously. Too much of this country’s leadership is maddeningly ego-centric, mixing up boldness and courage with hubris and pride.
The best leaders really are people—or countries—who make it possible, when the time is right, for others to step up and help form the coalitions and alliances that will be needed to succeed. Whether or not you agree with Obama’s actions in Libya, it’s hard to argue with the idea that good leaders are those who enable others and eschew credit rather than always going it alone. While there is a time and a place for both types of leadership, it’s important to remember that taking the lead doesn’t always have to happen from the front.
More from On Leadership