On anniversary of Osama bin Laden death, did Obama take too much credit?

Critics of Obama's move to politicize his bold decision to kill Osama bin Laden miss a deeper point about leadership.

Pete Souza, The White House/AP Photo
In this May 1, 2011, photo, President Obama and others on his national security team watch an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House.

The first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden has opened up a political shootout of its own. But one with a lesson in it.

President Obama has used the anniversary to highlight his risky – and successful – decision to send Navy SEALs into Pakistan. But his courageous action is also a centerpiece of his reelection bid. And his campaign suggests Mitt Romney might not have made the same choice a year ago.

Critics of Mr. Obama have pounced on his exploitation of what was a unifying event for Americans. They call it self-backslapping – especially after the president said last May that “we don’t want to appear to be spiking the ball.” They now claim he’s become a glory hog and has not shared the credit widely enough with the SEALs, intelligence officers, and others.

Such criticism misses a deeper point. If anything, the president’s attempt to encourage accolades for this historic decision may be an election-year lapse into a kind of leadership that cares more about getting credit than getting results. That would be very much unlike the way he describes his leadership style.

“We exercise our leadership best when we are listening,” he once said. In fact, his occasional displays of humility are one of his better attributes.

Indeed, a personal ambition to win praise can blind a leader from working with others, asking good questions, or dealing well with obstacles. And those working for someone who is self-enhancing may no longer feel personally responsible for the group’s goals.

Other problems arise. Those leaders with excessive pride are prone to quickly assign blame to others when things go wrong. “To err is human; to blame it on someone else is politics,” said the late vice president Hubert H. Humphrey.

In a democracy, a politician can win votes by touting a record of success, just as people applying for a job fill their résumé with past experience and education. But crafting one’s actions day to day around a desire for recognition can become an impediment to successful leadership.

A few previous US presidents understood this.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” said Harry Truman. And Ronald Reagan had this plaque on his Oval Office desk: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

His daughter Maureen described Reagan’s approach this way during a CNN program: “He was the kind of executive and the kind of person who wanted to give credit to the people who came and served and who did all this wonderful work. And so he didn’t bother to take credit for things that presidents usually take credit for. And I think because of that, it was assumed he didn’t work very hard.”

In many workplaces today, a new style of collaborative leadership allows employees to be self-governing as much as possible. Such distributed leadership encourages innovation and motivation. And it discourages the self-enhancing pursuit of credit.

“Better followership often begets better leadership,” says Barbara Kellerman, a scholar of leadership at Harvard University.

Humility can have its rewards. In his “Autobiography,” Benjamin Franklin admitted he “cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue.” But at least he learned how to pretend to be humble, knowing that others would eventually give him credit.

“The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid,” he wrote.

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