Leadership Lessons from Iraq

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Dominant in the news and in political debate across the country, U.S. involvement in Iraq is a hot button issue and the subject of sharp disagreement. While politicians argue over everything from the war’s cost, to its military strategy, to its morality, one painful truth is agreed upon by all: Iraq is a mess.

Entering the fifth year of the U.S.-led occupation, America and its allies have suffered more than 3,500 causalities. Dwarfing the allied military losses, the Iraqi civilian death toll is approaching 70,000—with between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths occurring each month. In addition to security threats, many Iraqis are absent of electricity, sewage, or water. Many fear to go to work or are unable to do so due to a lack of jobs. Death squads of militias ruthlessly capture and torture members of opposing ethnic or religious groups, and suicide bombings routinely spread terror.

What leadership lessons can be drawn from the difficulties faced in Iraq?
LESSON#1: A HOUSE DIVIDED CANNOT STAND

At the foundation of the struggle to rebuild Iraq lay the fissures of centuries of ethnic and religious conflict. Broadly speaking there are three main camps of Iraqis: Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds. Unfortunately, history has accounted for deep wounds, anger, and mistrust between the groups.

  1. 600’s-2007: The struggle between Sunnis and Shiites stretches back over 14 centuries.
  2. 1986-1989: Upwards of 50,000 Kurds died in Saddam Hussein’s campaign to remove the Kurds from Iraq. Kurdish Iraqis were placed in concentration camps, shot in front of firing squads, and the victims of chemical warfare.
  3. 1991: In the wake of the Desert Storm military operation in 1991, Shiite Arabs in southern Iraq rebelled against Saddam Hussein. Thousands of Shiites were massacred as Saddam’s loyalists committed unthinkable atrocities against them.
  4. 2006-2007: In a recent spree of violence, gangs of Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs have fought one another by: assassinating political leaders, destroying mosques and holy shrines, bombing marketplaces, and torturing and murdering civilians.

For the leaders in charge of reconstructing Iraqi society, reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites holds the key to success. The same principle stands true for any leader taking charge of a new team. Managing differences among team members is vital to building a unified and effective team. Diversity enriches, but dissension destroys. Leaders have the responsibility of setting a tone of mutual respect, cordial communication, and polite disagreement. When deep grudges are inherent in the team, a leader must painstakingly guide the parties involved toward reconciliation.

Lesson #2: TO THE VICTOR GOES THE SPOILS RESPONSIBILITY

In Iraq, Shiites outnumber Sunnis nearly two-to-one. Even so, the minority Sunnis have held political power for the past 1300 years. However, after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of democracy, the balance of power has reversed and Shiites finally enjoy the upper hand in Iraq’s government. For the past 25 years, Kurds have been persecuted and marginalized in Iraq. Now, in the new government, they find themselves in an unprecedented place of inclusion and power.

The fate of Iraq hinges upon the Shiite and Kurdish responsibility to protect the interests of the Sunni Arabs. With newfound power, each group will be tempted to consolidate its gains and to humiliate the Sunnis. However, subjugating the Sunni population will surely breed resentment and hostility. Only by respecting the rights of the Sunnis, will Iraq’s leaders be able to erase years of violent oppression toward disenfranchised people.

In any organization, managers compete to set strategic direction and lobby against one another for resources. At times, debate gets heated as two individuals spar for control. Inevitably, there are winners and losers. One manager wins support for their agenda, while another’s requests are denied.

For the victor, the temptation is to adopt an “I told you so,” attitude toward his or her opponent. The victor may leverage their favorable position for self-advancement rather than corporate progress. Or, the winner may use their advantage to deprive the loser of resources. Such selfish choices sabotage the organization. When gaining power, a leader’s proper response is to leverage it to serve the common good. Practically, this involves sharing power, staying attuned to minority points of view, and building consensus whenever possible. To the victor goes the tremendous responsibility to avoid the intoxication of power and to wield it for the benefit of all.

To speak of the troubles plaguing Iraq threatens to ignore the brave men and women working every day to secure, protect, and rebuild the country. It also threatens to obscure the sacrifice of millions of peace-loving, courageous Iraqis who aspire to a better future. Leadership Wired would like to thank the men and women who are risking their lives to bring stability to Iraq. LW also sends its fondest regards and best wishes to the Iraqi people during these difficult times.

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