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Obama/McCain Poker Plays: The Wisdom of Leaders Suspending Certainty

Obama and McCain, two poker players. McCain playing poker during Senate hearings because he's so sure he knows it all, that he doesn't need to pay attention. Obama leveraging his poker face to intimidate Syria and give everyone time to count the cards.

The result? The issue was explored. The views of Americans, who would bear the financial and moral responsibility of a military strike, were taken into consideration.

In the meantime, by engaging with the Russians, the most powerful non-supporters, Obama facilitated them in developing an alternative that is less costly, and may be more comprehensively effective than the only thing he thought might work. This may also keep Putin in somewhat good graces globally and lets the Russians maintain their relationship with Syria.

Then Syria, just two days after defiantly denying possession of poison gas and warning the United States and its allies about retaliation if a military strike was launched against them, backed down. Syria stopped denying it has, and has used, chemical weapons, and agreed to relinquish control of its stockpile. Obama's patient poker face ultimately provided a force-saving and face-saving solution for Syria, face-saving for Russia, and face-saving for Obama himself, who would have been humiliated by a congressional vote against action.

This is a historically profound demonstration of the value of suspending certainty. By in essence saying, "I will not let my certainty prevent me from consulting with you," Obama created a space for emergence of a solution which he himself may not have considered or thought possible. This is the wisdom of suspending certainty and skillfully practicing the art of possibility. Without surrendering and while firmly maintaining a credible threat and ultimate authority to execute a decision, Obama parked his certainty about the only option being creative destruction long enough for people to take him seriously, recalculate their options and consequences, and step forward with a non-violent, more creative and cooperative diplomatic proposal.

Some say Obama blinked. No, Obama opened his eyes even wider. Opened, also, his mind. Showed the smarts to use all the components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

He allowed people to ask questions and responded by bringing more factual data into the picture. He, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey, clarified what is a valid assumption and what is a counter-factual, which while impossible to prove, can't be ignored as a real and dangerous probability. Pros and cons were weighed. A more robust, intelligent, respectful conversation materialized in the U.S. and beyond.

Obama balanced his pride, righteousness, and passion to protect innocent people with humility to give his opposition the opportunity to build a better mouse trap than his best thinking had been able to fashion so far. He offered his hand and allowed the Russians to lead.

Obama used his poker face to create space for creative collaboration. A space bounded by the power he reserved to use force if collaboration did not result in a better idea. The whole global community became greater than the sum of its parts. And now a certainly better option than blowing a country, and maybe innocent Syrian civilians into pieces, is being pursued.

Will it work? Will the global community find a timely way to find and confiscate all of Syria's chemical weapons? Is this just a commitment, or a reliable commitment, from Syria that it will cooperate in giving up its chemical weapons and not use chemical warfare again? We don't know yet.

But we do know that tuning out to play cell phone games while colleagues share their views on issues -- whether it's about company policy or bombing a country -- is emotionally unintelligent, politically foolish, insulting, and downright dumb.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time," no one knows it all, all the time. And anyone who is sure of their intelligence, and also genuinely committed to a company's mission, the security of a country, or the safety of innocent children, needs to be smart enough to stay engaged and find a way to positively influence dialogues and decisions.

We also know that because Obama maintained a poker face, resisted the impulse to launch force even in the face of alarming videos of children in excruciating pain, and gave time for collaboration, in the form of Bashar Assad de facto admitting guilt and committing to a clean-up, Americans and the world are way ahead of the hostility bombing would have created as a starting to point for a diplomatic resolution.

This is a lesson in the wisdom of suspending certainty for all leaders; for anyone in any kind of human relationship, mothers and fathers leading families, front-line managers, Fortune 500 CEOs and leaders around the globe. Ultimately all superior solutions hinge on use of emotional intelligence. We all need to come out of the armor of arrogance, put down our cell phones, share ideas and also be quiet. Tune in to bring out the best in allies, adversaries, experts, beginners, and ourselves.

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