Leadership and the Demise of Osama bin Laden

Posted 05.02.2011

When I went to bed on Sunday night at 10:30 pm, the last thing I expected to read when I  woke up on Monday morning was  that U.S. special forces have killed Osama bin Laden. 

Pres-obama6 As I write this, the details of the operation and the decision process that preceded it are still being reported. According to the New York Times and other outlets, U.S. intelligence operatives received a lead last August on a location in Pakistan where bin Laden might have been living.  More information was gathered, plans were developed and last Friday morning before he left to survey tornado damage in Alabama, President Obama gave his approval to launch an operation to either capture or kill bin Laden at his compound.  Early Monday morning, Pakistan time, a couple of dozen Navy SEALS rappelled from helicopters into the bin Laden compound.  A firefight began and when bin Laden resisted, he was killed. Around 11:30 pm, Washington time, on Sunday night, the President announced to the nation and the world that bin Laden had been killed and that “justice has been done.”

While I haven’t fully sorted through my thoughts on the events of the past 24 hours, I am thinking about the different aspects of leadership that are required to create this kind of result.  Here’s what I have so far (I’d like to hear what you think through your comments):

Clarity of Goals:  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.”  When he took office, President Obama told his CIA director that his highest priority was to capture or kill bin Laden.  It took almost ten years to attain, but both Presidents made their goal very clear.

Continuity:  Obama took a lot of flack during the 2008 campaign for saying that he would authorize unilateral action into Pakistan to capture or kill terrorist leaders.  He followed through on a national priority established by his predecessor and, on Sunday, did what he said he was going to do by giving his final approval to go after bin Laden. 

Multi-tasking:  Operations like the one carried out by the SEALS require total surprise and security.  The leaders who know about it cannot signal that something is in the works. In the 48 hours prior to the assault, Obama met with survivors of the tornados in the South, attended and spoke at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night (where, ironically, comedian Seth Myers made a joke about Osama bin Laden hosting a daily show on the little watched CSPAN network) and played his usual round of golf on Sunday afternoon. It requires a lot of presence in the moment to show up credibly elsewhere while working on one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a leader.

Persistence:  The people who work in our intelligence community have the classic thankless job.  We’ll never know how much they’ve accomplished to protect us but we get plenty of reporting when things that go wrong. Ultimately getting bin Laden was one of the rare occasions when the success and work of intelligence professionals can be publicly recognized and appreciated.  It requires a lot of persistence and commitment to do what they do.   

Training:  Last year, I had the opportunity and honor to take an overnight trip on the aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S Truman.  My biggest take away from that visit was how much young people can accomplish when provided with the right leadership, training and expectations. The Navy SEALS, of course, have all of that along with courage in buckets. 

The Long View:   It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost ten years since 9/11.  As citizen led uprisings this year in the Middle East have challenged autocratic governments in ways that al Qaeda never could, the death of bin Laden feels like a marker of the end of one era and the beginning of another.  As the President said, justice has been done. Dealing effectively with what comes next will require enormous amounts of leadership and skill. Yes, we should remember those who were lost and honor those who ensured justice. We also have to look ahead, as leaders must, to what’s next.

What are your thoughts on the demise of Osama bin Laden and the leadership that was required to make it happen?