Insular Leadership – the Case of Barack Obama

 In 2004 Harvard Business School Press published my book titled, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters. In the book I identified seven different types of bad leadership.  

  •  Incompetent
  • Rigid
  • Intemperate
  • Callous
  • Corrupt
  • Insular
  • Evil

I made clear at every turn that “bad” refers not only to bad leaders but also, inevitably, to bad followers. There is no bad leadership without bad followership, which is precisely why the book was titled Bad Leadership, as opposed to Bad Leaders.

My focus here is on Insular Leadership, which I defined as follows: “The leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of ‘the other’ – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.” Think, for example, of the leaders astride cigarette companies in the 1960s and ‘70s. They were beginning to suspect if not know full well that smoking was bad, really bad, for people’s health. But, they did everything they could to conceal this fact from their customers, even resisting until they could no longer labels warning of the dangers.

Insular leaders and their followers establish boundaries between themselves and their immediate constituencies on the one side, and everyone else on the other. To a degree, of course, this is simply human nature. My group – my family, my tribe, my country, my company – competes with your group for resources, and in every other way as well. Still, in this day and age, when everyone knows what’s happening to everyone else, it should be difficult to turn a blind eye to danger, not to speak of tragedy, even when it befalls people who are “the other.”

So I fault President Barack Obama not so much for finding it difficult to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine. His options are limited given the circumstances and given how, in my view at least, Putin will stop at nearly nothing to hold on to a country that he views as essential both to greater Russia and to himself, personally and politically.

Rather I fault the president for insularity in his foreign policy leadership more generally. Obama’s foreign policy has been one of restraint, of holding back, of letting events follow their natural trajectories, of leading, if at all, “from behind” – whatever that means. His restraint has been in evidence at every turn, most strikingly arguably in America’s policy toward Syria, which has been to let history take its course while we stand by and do nearly nothing.

To be sure, there is a single exception to this general rule: when Obama had no where else to turn, he turned to Vladimir Putin to strike a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons. But, as we now know, this had the miserable effect of strengthening the hand of Putin’s client, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. It gave Assad free rein to continue to punish severely the Syrian people, and to further contribute to the worst humanitarian crisis in at least a generation. Let’s be clear: the number of dead in Syria, the vast number of Syrian refugees (two million and counting), and the overwhelming misery of the Syrian people more generally will be a reminder for many to come of how high the price of Insular Leadership. In the end the cost of doing nothing is way more – practically, politically, and obviously morally – than the cost of doing something. Don’t tell me that the Americans, the West more generally, and the United Nations could not have come up with a policy somewhere between military intervention and being a bystander to catastrophe!

Is there a connection between Obama’s general insularity and the situation in which he finds himself now – threatened, however indirectly, by yet another Russian dictator? Who knows? Safe to say though that pulling back from world politics, letting events unfold while we Americans stand by and watch, is not a foreign policy that history will judge one of distinction.





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