Understanding Obama’s Syria Negotiation–With Himself

On Syria, President Barack Obama is surrounded by calls to action, taunted from abroad that he’s too weak to act, criticized at home that he’s too slow or too uncertain. On one level, he’s facing a diabolical strategic challenge. That’s obvious. On another level, a more subtle one, he’s dealing with a tie-knots-in-your-stomach internal struggle. Because Obama, like all of us, isn’t of one mind. As neuroscientists show us, human beings possess a “multiplicity of mind” that pulls us in different directions. One part of us says go right while the other points left. One says, “Strike back!,” while another urges the prudent consideration of all options.

When he’s ready to make a move, Obama will negotiate with the world.  But first he needs to broker a deal inside of himself. For Obama, as for all of us when we face wrenching decisions, that can be the hardest negotiation of all.

What do I mean when I say that we negotiate with ourselves? Different activities of our brains give rise to different aspects of who we are.  In day-to-day life these forces operate as team, but with unique priorities, interests, and values. I think of them as inner advisers, what I call our “inner negotiators.”

After teaching negotiation at Harvard Law School for nearly 20 years, and over that time advising thousands of executives, lawyers, and public sector leaders, I can tell you that these inner parts of us work much the same way individuals do when they negotiate with other people. And many of the best practices for making deals and resolving disputes with other people apply to the negotiation within.

To help leaders get a handle on negotiating with themselves, I advise them to focus on a quartet of inner negotiators, a group that I call the big four: the visionary Dreamer, the analytical Thinker, the relational Lover, and the practical Warrior. These labels may not seem obvious at first, but they cover four fundamental considerations for leading well: possibilities, perspectives, people, and performance.

To understand how the big four apply to leaders, we can imagine how each of them might tug on Obama these days. So let’s go back to the President and Syria.

The Dreamer: Just a few months into his first term, President Obama traveled to Cairo to deliver a speech called “A New Beginning.” He relished the chance to send a clear signal to the Muslim world: America is not your enemy. We can work together to create the world anew. Riding the powerful wave of hope from his first election, Obama’s inner Dreamer saw a real opportunity for political repair, even healing.

I believe Obama’s inner Dreamer still longs for this possibility. Not out of concern for his presidential legacy but from a deeper source. The inner visionary in all of us keeps our sight on the best version of tomorrow, despite whatever’s happening today. I’d guess that Obama’s Dreamer still wants to make the world of the future more collaborative and more peaceful, as well as more secure.

Whether you agree with his vision doesn’t concern me. My point here is only to show how the inner Dreamer works, in us and possibly in the president.

The Thinker: While the inner Dreamer pines for a better future, the inner Thinker sticks to logic and cold, hard facts. The data simply aren’t there for that dream: We aren’t in a new era of mutual understanding and respect. If we issued an invitation to enter a world with less violence, less extremism, and less bald hatred, that invitation was declined.

Obama’s Thinker receives information every day showing how far we are from that vision. On certain days, his Thinker gets evidence that draws his analytical mind into focus on that conclusion. Like the day of the deadly attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Or the days more recently when the world learned that Syria has used chemical weapons against its people. You can debate how or why those events happened, but you can’t deny that the incidents took place. Obama’s Thinker will demand that these facts on the ground figure into any decisions about how to act.  He’ll also need a clear chain of logic to try to understand the implications and consequences of what happens next.

The Lover: While all this is going on, Obama’s inner Lover focuses elsewhere, on people. I’d imagine his inner Lover is split at the moment, torn between loyalty to two sets of people.

On the one hand, he is a citizen of the world. His Dreamer’s desire to collaborate, whether in the Middle East or across the aisle in Congress, arises in part from a Lover’s wish to forge alliances and relationships. Remember, this is the same person who declared at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that there are no red states or blue states, just the United States.

In that spirit, I’d expect that Obama’s inner Lover wants to do right by the most vulnerable people in Syria. He’s appealing to the international community as well as to Congress to abide by past commitments to protect basic human welfare. Republicans and Democrats agree that chemical weapons cross “humanity’s red line.”

On the other hand, Obama serves one member of the family of nations first and foremost: America. He works for the American people. He leads from their mandate. Whatever broad humanitarian impulses his inner Lover might feel, he also carries a fundamental loyalty to the American people. And a large majority of those people want to avoid military intervention. Notwithstanding calls for U.S. action, his relationship to the American people is primary.

The Warrior: Then there’s Obama’s inner Warrior. This doesn’t mean an inner negotiator who values armed warfare, though in this specific case that’s on the table. The inner Warrior is the part of us that takes action and gets things done. Where the Dreamer muses about the future, the Thinker reviews data and forms opinions, and the Lover feels for people and taking care of them, the Warrior wants to seize the plan and get going.

People calling on Obama to act now are expressing the drive of the Warrior: Let’s do something, and fast. Inner Warriors are baffled by his choosing to ask Congress for a green light and frustrated by his waiting 10 days for it to come back into session. The Warrior isn’t about patient, considered action; that’s the Thinker’s job. The Warrior wants to get moving and keep moving until the job is done.

As the president charts a course in the days, weeks, and months ahead, all of these inner negotiators will make their plays to influence him. Like each of us when we lead, he may lie  in bed at night hearing input from all of them. Then he’ll need to weigh their input at his inner conference table and try to broker a deal.

Obama’s Warrior knows he needs to take some action, and I don’t doubt that he will. But this President’s Warrior is not quick to act before consulting his other inner advisers. He’ll want a plan that doesn’t destroy his long-term dream, considers all of the facts with nuanced analysis, and meets his obligations to the American people while still protecting the common good. That is no small order.

At the end of the day, for President Obama or for any of us, great leadership comes from listening to all of the Big Four and finding ways to reach agreement inside oneself first. That makes all the difference between leading wisely and just acting quickly.

As we face the leadership challenges in our businesses, and in our lives, perhaps we can take a cue from Obama on how to reach a sound and durable agreement within ourselves.

Originally published on Forbes.com

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