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September 14, 2003 Opinion

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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 certainty was certainly misplaced. Bush's foreign policy is a shambles -- a war against the wrong enemy (Iraq and not worldwide terrorism), for the wrong reasons (where are those weapons of mass destruction?), a debacle in postwar Iraq (who are those terrorists?), a Middle Eastern road map to nowhere (wasn't Iraq going to make it all so easy?) and a string of statements about nearly everything (the cost of rebuilding Iraq, for instance) that have proved either untrue or just plain dumb.
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:
This could have and should have been an era of unprecedented national - indeed, international - unity against a common enemy. President Bush could have gone to the other nations of the world and made a case for a new age of international cooperation against terrorism and fundamentalism. That cooperation, and that fight, would have been aimed squarely at the Taliban and at the House of Saud, and, to a lesser extent, at the smaller terrorist networks that operate in the Middle East. To be sure, this wouldn't have been easy. There would have been (as there are) vast disagreements between the United States and nations of Europe over how to deal with the Palestinian question and what to do about Saudi Arabia. But a historical process would have begun, and the United States would clearly and unambiguously have occupied the moral high ground in such a case. That United States would have been proposing a new and forward-looking framework for foreign policy, much as the "Wise Men" of the post-World War II period did.

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...

President Bush will get his $87 billion for a year's worth of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he will have to endure a lot of nyah-nyah-nyah and I-told-you-so along the way.  He could have avoided all this irritation - and he is just the kind of man to find it incredibly irritating - with two little words in his TV address last Sunday evening: "I'm sorry."  If he had acknowledged with a bit of grace what everyone assumes to be true -that the administration was blindsided by the postwar challenge in both these countries -this would have cut off a politically damaging debate that will now go on through the election campaign.  And he would have won all sorts of brownie points for high-mindedness.  Instead, he and his spokesfolk will be defending a fairly obvious untruth day after day through the election campaign.
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...
... I recognize that behavior. Lord help me, I've seen it done. It's one of the tactics you can use if you're in an executive-level job thats beyond your abilities, you have to have meetings with underlings who know more than you do, and your only concern is to save face while making sure they're giving you what you want.

The discussion that passes at a normal meeting is subject to normal criticism and analysis. You don't want that. If instead you run the meeting in a deliberately provocative fashion, it skews the discourse out of shape, generates a lot of noise and confusion, and throws everyone off balance. This camouflages the fact that you don't know which end of the stick is sharp. It also teaches people that theyre only safe if you're happy.

Having to ask questions is likewise unacceptable. Being provocative is a way to get your underlings to automatically give you a recap of what the issues are, their relative importance, how the whole picture fits together, and where that underling comes into it. ...

If in the course of your provocation du jour you make some egregious blunder, you can claim you were just trying to think outside the box.  After all, the more basic and obvious the thing is that you just demonstrated you don't know, the greater the need to periodically examine its underlying assumptions - right?  And if you also take the attitude that you owe no one any explanations, you're pretty much covered on all fronts.

...it's lousy management technique and irresponsible command behavior. ...

One more observation. Consider Bush's statement: Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation. That is not and cannot be the voice of a public servant. What you're hearing there is a long-accustomed and automatic assumption of privilege: You're there for me. I'm not there for you.

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. 
  • I taught English and music at two of these "exclusive private preparatory schools for the privileged" - in 1969-70 at Shady Side Academy and 1974-1980 at the Harley School.
  • From 1980 to 1986 I designed at taught supervision and management courses for a large aerospace corporation in Los Angeles.
  • I've been in management at various levels in major corporations, in large-scale HR-payroll, financial and manufacturing systems, since the early nineties.
All this has no doubt distorted my perspective on the matters above.


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September 14, 2003

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