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What Psychological Science Says about Obama and What Makes an Effective Leader in Trying Times

What does science say about leadership in today's wacky world?

Until George Bush Jr. became president, the word "incurious" was seldom linked with American Diplomacy. From all accounts, Bush was extremely loyal to the people and groups he identified with, respectful of authority and order, and extremely committed to his values of security and tradition. Yet blatantly absent was the curiosity, the openness to change, that makes a president good.

In less than a decade, we experienced the terrorist attacks of 9/11, collapse of the subprime lending market, and the genome project where for the first time a species mapped out the recipe for creating itself. History is a sequence of novelty, surprising events, and discoveries. A leader who needs certainty and fails to be curious is at a major disadvantage. During the incurious George administration, government officials were consistently pressured to corroborate reports with the steadfast beliefs and gut feelings of Bush and his cronies. For eight long years, this presented an unsuitable climate for people to inquire, test hypotheses, consider alternatives, and interpret data before arriving at a conclusion. Bush's legacy is a lesson on the danger of power in the absence of curiosity: the international community views us as a country that imposes its will without sufficient rationale.

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But that's in the past, let's move to now, right now. It's refreshing to hear Obama speak of his uncertainty about the future of the economy or foreign relations because anything less would be dishonest. For many, the image of him extending his hand to Chavez or talking with the leader of Iran is repulsive and inappropriate. At this exact moment, people from other political parties, media pundits, and even a growing section of the general public are lambasting him for being timid, for thinking instead of being rash and aggressive.

As a scientist who studies strengths of character, I view these events differently. He is exercising the least common strength in the United States, self-control, along with one of the most common strengths, curiosity. He is assessing instead of trying to dominate the situation. He recognizes that a strong stance would curry favor of people who crave an immediate resolution but history says that it might backfire. Governments such as Iran control information. Interventions by foreigners are used as pre-packaged propaganda. When foreigners are blamed it's easy to escalate the violence and destruction. When it appears that he is not acting, Obama is acting. Obama is letting things unfold and patiently waiting for the right opening so that this crisis is handled effectively. By exercising his self-control and curiosity, Obama gains new perspectives to make informed judgments instead of premature commitments to temporary solutions that might be ill-informed in the long run. This level of willpower is far too rare in an era of impatience and immediacy. Because soon the cameras will stop rolling as the media moves on to the next international crisis. When Obama shows a combination of openness and restraint, the international community in turn, shows a readiness to meet him and improve existing relationships. This approach requires someone to always be thinking two to three moves ahead on the chess board.

This is how to lead in an evolving world. Be wary of so-called experts who approach new problems with the old tools of past solutions. When we carefully observe other people and situations with an open, receptive attitude, our attention is broadened, we draw a greater number of connections between ideas, resulting in flexible and creative thinking. As if this weren't enough, when we are open-minded, negative emotions fail to linger or derail us from making progress toward our goals.

If you want to diffuse conflicts and negotiate with seemingly hostile leaders, you don't avoid them until they agree to your demands. Instead, you take the time to be genuinely curious about their perspective. What are the values and interests that motivate them? Where is there agreement? How can areas of disagreement be recognized as opposing principles that on balance could work? The past administration assumed a firm stance that "opponents" -- especially "The Axis of Evil" -- would eventually submit to American power and perspective.

Obama has a keen curiosity about allies and opponents alike. This doesn't mean he agrees with everything they say and do. This doesn't mean he is committed to altering or changing his position based on what he learns. Instead, he gathers insights that allow him to decide on the best course of action.

Obama's approach to diplomacy is backed by laboratory research by psychologists. Ask a clarifying question about the other person's view to let them know you are listening. That's it. One question and suspend your beliefs for a short period of time so that the other person doesn't become defensive and shut down. Probe for details and you will be viewed as warm and open-minded and in turn, compromises benefiting everyone become more likely. Curiosity is contagious. Show interest in what "opponents" care about and they will do the same. The takeaway lesson is that Obama's behavior sets the stage for the win-win outcomes of a benevolent society.

Obama is surrounded by what leaders need: advisors chosen based on credentials and who are ready to dissent in the appropriate situation. To be curious in a stressful situation a person needs to harness the ability to tolerate pain and discomfort. Far too many atrocities, wars, and societal ills can often be traced to the absence of curiosity.

We need leaders who search for fresh solutions instead of recycling old ideas. We need leaders that take an interest in how to modify their behavior and feelings to match the demands of situations. When human rights are being stifled and innocent people are being killed, the world should be skeptical of everything that is being done by leaders. Knowing that real lives are on the line, I suggest that critics follow Obama's lead and check to see whether seemingly good interventions are more than pawns on the grand chessboard.

 

[NOTE: if you can't read the caption on the picture it says, "Always remember that fear and intimidation bring immediate results."]


Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Details about his book and research can be found at www.toddkashdan.com

Follow Todd Kashdan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/toddkashdan

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your 'Good' Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment more...

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