The great 19th century military theorist Clausewitz wrote that — I’m paraphrasing here — the first and most important task of a leader is to understand the type of conflict or struggle he is engaged in. Poker players apparently have a more mundane way of putting things. If you’re the only one at the table who’s wondering who the patsy is, then you’re it.

In the last week we’ve seen just how amateurish the Obama administration is when it comes to the Great Game of great power relations, war, and diplomacy. The Keystone Cops routine that is the Obama policy on Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be funny were the consequences and implications not so deadly and ominous. President Putin of Russia is not so dilettantish in his approach to Syria. He sees the civil war there as a struggle to maintain and reinforce his influence with thugish regimes all around the world. It is also a confirmation within Russia, if any was needed, of his status as a classic strongman. The situation is even starker for Assad, for whom this war is not just a political struggle, but a fight to the death. Given what has happened to other dictators after their downfall throughout the world (Mubarak, Khaddafi, Saddam), it’s not surprising that he sees things in this light. The US is playing with its credibility and standing on the world stage and its ability to influence the policies and alignments of other nations. Obama is also gambling with the prerogatives of the office of president as commander-in-chief. All because he apparently doesn’t have the stomach for the fight — which came with the job — or because he doesn’t realize how significant the current crisis is.

We can see this all the time in organizations and business. A market leading company sees a new product as a minor irritant or insignificant (as one of RIM’s co-CEOs Mike Laziridis said on seeing the first iPhone) whereas the attacker sees it as a matter of life and death. An executive is playing nice, but there are other people in the company who are gunning for his position.

Food for Thought
Are you in a fight? Do you know its nature? Do you competitors or opponents view it in the same light? Are you willing to pay the price to win or to “fall on your sword”?

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

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