Just Above Sunset Archives
September 14, 2003 Opinion
Leadership, Management Theory and Saying You're Sorry or That You Need Help
When Bob Woodward was interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes regarding Woodward's research on the book he wrote about George W. Bush, Woodward made some interesting comments.
Woodward said Bush told him that when Bush chairs a meeting he often tries to be provocative. When Woodward asked him if he tells his staff that he is purposely being provocative, Bush answered: "Of course not. I am the commander, see? I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.
That's an interesting take on leadership, given what has happened this last week. It was last Sunday night, the 7th, when the president gave his speech explaining he was asking for eighty-seven billion dollars to fund the war and reconstruction in Iraq, just for the next year. And we were now going to go to the United Nations for some sort of support. And we all had to make sacrifices.
Sacrifices? I was reminded of a movie I kind of liked - Shrek. And I don't generally like children's films. The big speech Sunday night reminded me of the film I saw Bush - but I was reminded of Lord Farquaad (voice of John Lithgow): "Some of you are going to die, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."
Ah, the full quote is - "The champion will have the honor, no, no, the privilege, to go forth and rescue the lovely Princess Fiona from the fiery keep of the dragon. If for any reason, the winner is unsuccessful, the first runner-up will take his place. And so on and so forth. Some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."
So we're asked for sacrifice. And some may feel they've been had.
The war is not as inexpensive as advertised, as the oil money from the Iraqi wells cannot pay for the cost of what needs to be done, as we were told it would. And we will sacrifice, because a lot of what we were told seems not to be so. And we were told with such certainty.
As Richard Cohen puts it this week in the Washington Post -
That is perhaps a little harsh, but not far from a reasonable way of seeing things. And that got me thinking about leadership, as a concept.
Cohen in his long essay gives Bush debits for being unschooled, incurious, unquestioning and unprepared, and seems to think there is something fundamentally wrong with how "certain" Bush is about everything he does.
Perhaps Cohen forgets one sometimes gets real credit for one's absolute certainty. As I have maintained to my friends, Americans love certainty. That's why Bush will probably win in the next election handily - he may be wrong and not even know it, but he's "certain and decisive," and you have to admire that. Well, I guess you do, because everyone else but the lefties admires that.
Certainty. Folks have "needed that" for the last two years, one must conclude. How else does one explain Bush's popularity? The country got all shook up after that business with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Of course. Certainty is comforting. That is the thing for which we turn to leaders.
It seems sometimes people define "leadership" as having only a few necessary and sufficient conditions - 1.) Unwavering certainly that one is right and that what one wants, however absurd and unconventional, is quite possible, 2.) An attitude that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome with the right attitude of optimism, 3.) A scorn for the possibility that any questions raised may have even a smidgen of validity, and 4.) Advisers who assure you, and all others, that negative thoughts and bad attitude are what always, invariably cause failure. "It will work..." - whatever it is. Know that in your heart, ignore the naysayer or two, and the French, and everyone will follow you.
Leadership. A wonderful thing. It's a pretty thought.
When William Safire, the token conservative columnist at the New York Times, along with David Brooks now, who started at the Times just this week after being lured away from Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, that bible of the neoconservative war theorists... anyway, when Safire was the speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew a long time ago he put some great words in Agnew's mouth. Remember the "nattering nabobs of negativism?" Spiro said he didn't like them - if Agnew actually knew what the words meant. Nattering? Nabobs? Indeed. Well, I suspect that phrase may resurface. Its time has come again. We are not negative. We are certain.
As I recall, Safire also wrote a speech where he had Agnew railing against the welfare system, calling it an "eleemosynary feast" - and that's a great phrase too, lifted from the first paragraph of Fielding's Tom Jones. Fielding probably rolled over in his grave when the somewhat sleazy Greek-American politician from Maryland uttered that. And it did, without a doubt, send more than a few cub reporters scurrying off to find an OED to look up that odd word.
Who says conservatives don't have a sense of humor? They're not all Bill O'Reilly.
I wonder if Agnew, after he retired, even rang up Safire on the long-distance line and asked him the obvious question - "What the hell did I mean?"
But back to "certainty" and never allowing "the negative."
We do seem to have a respected leader who is respected for unwavering certainty. Whether right or wrong, he's certain.
Cohen says, "America is not a particularly ideological country. We simply like the job done, and pragmatism is generally admired. But foreign affairs is not Tom Edison's laboratory - if this won't work, maybe that will - but an area where lives are lost and nations suffer. It is not a field for amateurs or zealots -- and the Bush administration is proving itself to have a surplus of both."
But perhaps the issue is not pragmatism, but a love for someone who asserts they know what they are doing. That's comforting. But it can cause trouble when that of which they are certain is just not true.
It could have been different. How would things be different, and maybe better, had we gone to the United Natons on September 12th two years ago, had we gone to the world , and said this: We have a problem and now that we, like you, have experienced a major terrorist attack, so perhaps we should all sit down together and form a united front to deal with this stuff we all face? You know, brainstorm, toss around some ideas, work out some mutual plan... almost as if we're all in this together. Because maybe we are.
No way. Revenge is too sweet. So we took over Iraq. Huh?
Of course, politically, this "other" approach would never work. Bush knows how people think, and knows how they feel. People wanted balance. Dead bodies in the Middle East. Someone hits you, and things don't feel right until you hit someone back. Iraq may have been the wrong party to hit, but close enough.
And it was a matter of patriotism. And pride... we're not just some dinky little has-been country. We're different. And we were dissed - big time.
We have here two different view of leadership.
Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect this week suggested this other form of leadersship would look something like this:
Yeah, but would it sell to the American public - frightened, angry, and out to kick some ass?
And anothe pint on leadership: In now asking for the money and international cooperation, neither of which we were earlier told we needed in the slightest, could this leader have said "oops" - and still have been a good leader?
Michael Kinsley in Slate this week asked the question...
But isn't leadership never having to say you're sorry? Don't apologize, and never, ever explain. Something like that. And that seem to be what Woodward observed. All that and being "provocative" - keeping those around you off balance.
Brad DeLong on his website this week recognizes this...
The "automatic assumption of privilege?" Well, there is no need to rehearse the president's background here. Andover. Yale. David Brooks, in his second column for his new employer, the Times, this week waxed nostalgic for the virtues of the exclusive private preparatory school for the privileged.
I have my doubts. I taught in that environment - Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh with the Mellon-Scaiffe kids, then the Harley School in upstate New York with the grandchildren of the robber-barons.
Brooks has it partially right. The systems produces folks who assume leadership is their right and privilege. And thus it produces some who do become impressive leaders. The system also turns out a lot of little snots, who now sell real estate, yachts, or drugs. The essay is really, at bottom, a defense of elitist education. He really hates "meritocrats," as he calls them. Those are the folks who don't have the connections, just the smarts.
I am not sure the problem, if there is one, is with privilege and how that makes you think. The exclusive private preparatory schools for the privileged turned out a few liberal, internationalist, "community of man" sorts of leaders. One thinks of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
The issue is one of temperament. On one end of the scale you have the "I'm the boss and you're not" school of leadership. On the other end you have the "We're all in this together so let's figure out how to make this work" school of leadership. One assumes unquestioning obedience while the other assumes the leader draws on all the available resources and shapes some sort of plan everyone can pretty much agree to.
The next national election may be a matter choosing between two leadership/management approaches. "We're all in this together so tell me what you think and what your ideas are..." not words that come naturally to the current leadership. And I wonder if those who will vote in the next national election think those are words any leader should speak.
All this has no doubt distorted my perspective on the matters above.
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