June 20, 2004

The Executive Office and Wooden-Headedness

From the comment thread in my recent rhetoric of Reagan post:

a mediocre actor can be remembered as a good president by putting excellent people in place and saying his lines well

Working with a large number of senior executives as I do, it occurs to me that they and many management theorists would read that comment and say it’s a perfect description of the effective chief executive:

  • Having a vision for the business (Reagan envisioned a “city on the hill” and a world without Communism)
  • Having a philosophy for how to get there (his conservative agenda … I’m not endorsing it, but he treated small government, lower taxes, strong military, etc. in both philosophical and strategic terms)
  • Setting that direction in a clear and credible manner (saying his lines well)
  • Allowing his or her direct reports to execute that strategy with more skill and talent than the executive could wield as one person.

I think part of the problem with our expectations for the Office of the President is that we presume the person who holds it should be a “hands on” leader. “Hands on” is a relative concept for an executive office. Good executives are hands on in matters of vision, philosophy, values, and strategy … but with execution, they get the hell out of the way and let their operational leads do their jobs.

This was Carter’s problem: none of the former, all of the latter, and he nearly micromanaged the government to death. One of Reagan’s failings was that he was appropriately hands off, but didn’t necessarily hold his direct reports accountable for living the same value system … and we got Ollie North as a result.

But on the whole, I think history will show that the Reagan model is the right one for the office, especially in an increasingly complex world: manage as an executive, not as a legislator (who drafts, but does not set, policy) or operational lead (who implements, but does not set, policy). At first blush, it strikes me that Clinton was better than Carter and Ford in this regard, but was at times too involved in policy implementation (Hillary with healthcare). Nixon was in the end a disaster because of this … his paranoia-fed micromanagement went so far he tried to fix the election. LBJ was excellent in his domestic policy … he took stands based on a set of values and let his Legislative Affairs group push the resulting agenda through Congress … but his micromanagement of Vietnam was extraordinary.

It’s an interesting dynamic, expecting our President to literally “run” the country when that’s really not the job. A better metaphor is “producer/director” from the film industry: he/she should produce and articulate the “what and why” of foreign and domestic policy direction, and should play a slightly more active role directing foreign policy as he/she is the primary negotiator of State in many affairs. But “run” the country? No.

So looking at the choice this time around, one of the things I’m considering is “who’s the better CEO?” Everyone from the conservative camp (and some liberals as well) say this is a Bush strength: he sets direction and gets out of the way.

That said, I think there’s a legitimate cause for concern in his management style: A good CEO sets direction and creates a strong team to execute, but he/she also fosters … hell, encourages … creative dissent and productive confrontation among that team so the group doesn’t fall victim to groupthink. The markers of groupthink? They include:

  • Examining few alternatives
  • Not seeking expert or outside opinions
  • Being highly selective in gathering information
  • An illusion of invulnerability
  • Strong belief in group’s inherent morality
  • Rationalizing poor decisions
  • Pressure to conform within group; members withhold criticisms
  • Pressure to protect group from negative views or information
  • Overt external or internal pressure to come to a decision
  • Individual group members look to each other to confirm theories

A similar pitfall, especially dangerous for executive officers, is what Sydney Finkelstein here calls “wooden-headedness”: the practice of “relying on preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs” (a term originally coined by historian Barbara Tuchman).

The Bush administration is famous … no, infamous … for its ability to speak as a single voice, and according to some, squelch dissent among the ranks (fear of Karl Rove, perhaps? If you haven’t yet read this Nicholas Lemann profile, do so now). This is certainly the message Bob Woodward has been spinning in pitching his most recent book: that the nucleus around Bush is extremely small, extremely tight, and extremely aggressive about creating and promoting a single point of view.

Consider the management of post-invasion Iraq. Does anything feel like “relying on preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs” to you?

Posted by Avocare at June 20, 2004 09:46 AM | TrackBack

The description of the role of a good executive is terrific. The criticism of forcing a single point of view may be accurate, but it seems conceivable to me that the wrestling with disparate ideas and the internal criticism appropriate to arriving at a proper decision may occur out of sight of the news media.
For an arrogant and biased press (assumption for argument), that method of decision making and position development might be subject to unfair criticism. The press might assume that because they were not aware of the nature of the process, it didn't occur.

Posted by: Jim Borland at June 21, 2004 05:29 PM
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