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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.


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.

Pete Souza, The White House/AP Photo

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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.


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