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The Mandela Doctrine: Lessons for Obama

An environment as complex, volatile and polarized as Washington is today requires adaptive leaders who employ smart power effectively
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Our country is fickled. Progressives demand that President Obama finally stand up and fight for a jobs bill. Conservatives prefer that he quietly demur. The general public is calling for partisan compromise, while economists preach bold initiatives. Obama's political advisors are looking for quick wins to gain points in the polls, while U.S. markets clamor for long-term fiscal reform.

What's a leader to do? Ask Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was a man of many contradictions. Born the son of a village community leader, he developed an abiding respect for authority. Yet as a young man, he spent decades of his life fighting doggedly against state authorities in South Africa. Modeling his father, he learned to collaborate and unite. But training as a boxer and trial lawyer, he became a tenacious fighter. Sharing the African National Congresses' core value of non-violence, he became a master at non-cooperation and civil disobedience. But when these strategies were met with brutal violence on the streets of Johannesburg, he became a student of military strategy, munitions, sabotage and guerilla warfare.

While a political prisoner in Robben Island, he developed jujitsu tactics of influence; learning to use his lessor-power and the rules of the authorities for their undoing. But when elected president, Mandela displayed the compassion, grace and benevolence of a truly great leader. Through the many decades of his struggle against Apartheid and towards a united, multiethnic South Africa, Mandela needed all of these tactics and skills. He needed them to adapt, survive and be effective.

President Obama should follow Mandela's lead. He should employ every strategy available to him -- hard and soft, public and private, short-term and long-term -- to help jump-start the U.S. economy. He should:

A) Command and control -- Use the bully-pulpit and every ounce of his power, information and authority to demand, incentivize, threaten, coerce, expose and publicly shame resistant members of Congress to get them to pass an ambitious bill;

B) Take the high road -- Model exemplary, collaborative, win-win leadership by listening carefully to the needs and concerns of the bill's opponents, finding common ground on the priority objectives, and uniting both parties and the country around a common vision and purpose;

C) Build bottom-up support -- Reach out to as many constituent groups as possible, including his base, his younger Internet community, his allies in business, media and politics, as well as his opponents, and plead, barter, beg, and ingratiate himself in order to mobilize them and secure their support for the bill;

D) Appease his opponents -- Ignore the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric and hyperbole of his opponents when absolutely necessary, and be willing to negotiate with them on their key demands while quietly laying-in-wait for conditions to change and opportunities to present themselves where he can effectively turn the tables;

E) Develop a strong BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) -- Spend time and energy developing alternative strategies, where he can still achieve his principle goals -- some unilaterally through executive action if necessary -- to lessen his dependence on Congress in these matters; and

F) Revolt -- know the limits of conciliation. Know where he must draw a line for what matters most. Know that some situations call for a revolution; for drastic measures -- and communicate clearly what those principles are and when enough is enough -- damn the consequences.

This is smart power -- the capacity to employ different types of influence in different situations -- in an artful manner -- to achieve one's goals. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has been advocating the use of smart power, a combination of hard power (military, economic, etc.) and soft power (moral, cultural, etc.) in our foreign policy for years. And President Obama has taken to this idea. Now is the time to employ a similar approach on critical economic issues.

Research has found that although many of our leaders tend to get stuck in one approach to negotiating conflict (domination or over-conciliation), our more effective leaders are more nimble. They read situations more carefully, consider their short and long-term objectives and then employ a variety of different strategies in order to increase the probabilities that their agenda will succeed. They know the difference between a temporary dispute and a long-term war. They know when to stay the course and when to change tactics. They recognize that good leadership requires both -- providing a sense of stability, vision and purpose, and the capacity to recognize and respond effectively to important changes in the landscape.

And this is what is needed to address our country's economic hardships today. President Obama must privately pressure, publically shame, even coerce Republicans and Democrats in Congress to pass the bill, continue to model the high-road public leadership he has displayed through his administration, return to the aggressive bottom-up coalition-building tactics of his campaign, tolerate and appease his opponents only when absolutely necessary, and all the while be thinking long-term and developing alternative scenarios and venues for reform. This strategy should be based on a clear sense of a bottom-line; the point at which he is willing to accept the consequences of drastic actions to do what he believes is right.

An environment as complex, volatile and polarized as Washington is today requires adaptive leaders who employ smart power effectively. Leaders who are masters at combining A through F above and employing networks of agents skilled in them all to move us forward. No, President Obama is not fighting apartheid, but he is battling an obstinate congress in a time of economic crisis for the majority of Americans.

Here's hoping that our President is up to marshaling all the above.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is on faculty at Teachers College and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.