April 23, 2009
Dale Carnegie would be proud.
Lao Tzu too.
Barack Obama must have gone down to the Summit of the Americas meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders last week with a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People in his pocket.
Before he left, he rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from that old revolutionary, president Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
When he got to the meeting in Trinidad, he gave Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and the surly spitter of anti-American vitriol, a broad smile and a warm handshake — and Chavez smiled back.
Right out of How to Win Friends, that primordial self-help text that has been showing people how to shake the fruit from other people's trees since 1936. It's just common sense, codified: If you treat people with respect, they're much more likely to do what you'd like them to do.
And heads of state are people too.
Anyone who has read a self-improvement book, from Carnegie to Covey — and who hasn't? — or taken a human-relations course, or been in family counseling, has learned the "habits of highly effective people." Of course, it's one thing to know it and a whole other thing to do it.
Obama seems to be doing it.
How to make people like you? Carnegie's approach is simple: Be genuinely interested in them; smile; be a good listener; talk in terms of their interests.
How to win people to your way of thinking? Show respect for their opinions; if you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; let them feel the idea is theirs; see things from their point of view; let them save face.
Obama is deftly employing those tactics with Cuba, and they may win him the success that almost 50 years of belligerence from nine other presidents has failed to achieve.
Previous administrations have demanded that Cuba initiate democratic reforms before the U.S. would consider lifting its trade embargo and re-establishing diplomatic relations. But Obama's principle that negotiations, even failed ones, are always worthwhile is allowing Castro himself to bring up the very issues that have irked America from the start, dealing with them, as he said, "as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people's right to self-determination."
In Carnegie's formula: Let them feel the idea is theirs; let them save face.
In an even more unexpected turnabout, Castro went on: "We could be wrong. We admit it. We're human beings."
I have no doubt that this admission arose as a direct result of Obama's own frankness about U.S. policy errors — especially and most recently the disclosure of the tactics of torture inflicted on its own political prisoners: the equality of mutual fault.
Carnegie again: If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
Of course, there are other factors that may lead to the relaxing of tensions — the eclipse of both the doctrinaire Fidel and the equally doctrinaire first generation of Cuban refugees, as well as the utterly un-doctrinaire American businesses chomping at the bit to hit the Cuban marketplace — but it's the approach from the top that's facilitating it.
What a contrast from the G. W. Bush approach, where a smile became a smirk, where other countries were treated not as equals but as inferiors, where America was never wrong, no matter how wrong it was.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote The Way of Taoover two millennia ago, characterized leadership this way: "When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!'"
Oh, for a Havana cigar!