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June 23rd, 2010
10:11 AM ET

Letter to the President #520: 'Speaking frankly... Generally'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://cnnafghanistan.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/mcchrystal1.jpg caption="For whatever twists and turns may come out of this episode with the general, for example, I think a smart play would be to park your politics, and in a private, deliberate way, consider the motivations behind his statements and those of his staff." width=300 height=169]

Reporter's Note: President Obama, as if he did not have enough on his plate, now has a headline grabbing conflict with his lead player in Afghanistan. And now he has another letter from me too! Will the trials never end?

Dear Mr. President,

Even down here on the Gulf, I have been following the dust-up over your top Afghanistan man, General Stanley McChrystal, and it seems like a genuine mess. See? That’s the problem with telling people you want them to be candid: Sometimes they are and then you have to figure out what to do about it. Ha!

Kidding aside, I know this is terribly serious business. The relationship between a president and his top generals is nothing to be trifled with, since any uncertainty about who is in charge runs the risk of endangering our troops. Above all else, including your ego or the general’s, that is what matters most in this equation.

That said I did want to want to write a few words about the difficult balance involved in having people speak freely, but not letting them run roughshod over you as their leader. I learned long ago that most of the time when bosses say “I want you to be honest about what you think,” they don’t really mean it. What they usually want is for you to pretend that you are being earnest while you tell them how brilliant they are; sort of pseudo-sincere-sucking up.

On the other hand, my best bosses have always listened carefully to even the most disgruntled employee; not to give the griper undue influence, but rather to figure out if there are bedrock truths beneath their complaints.

For whatever twists and turns may come out of this episode with the general, for example, I think a smart play would be to park your politics, and in a private, deliberate way, consider the motivations behind his statements and those of his staff. If you find no merit in their arguments, then you can dispatch them with a clear conscience and confidence that you’ve taken the right action. If, however, you find that these are the breakthrough frustrations of reasonable people who feel you are genuinely headed the wrong way, then you have a real gift; an insight into something about your own policies and leadership which might need refinement.

This is a complex trick to pull off, no doubt about it. When people throw stones, it is difficult to ask yourself if you left a pile of rocks lying around. But if you can do that, you can turn even the actions of your worst enemies into tools of self-improvement… and that can make even harsh words, well worth the sting.

Just a few ideas as I continue my tour of the Gulf. I’m going out for a run now. I never get enough exercise on the road, but I’m intent on doing better this summer. If not, my wife will be criticizing me in Rolling Stone. Ha!

Call if you can. Did you try to reach me today? I thought I heard my phone ringing, but it was way down in my pocket and I was having pancakes, so you can understand me not wanting to be distracted.

Regards,
Tom

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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