Posted by: mutantpoodle | December 8, 2009

A Worthy Executive

President Barack Obama prepares backstage before delivering his speech on Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in West Point, N.Y., December 1, 2009.

I have, in the past, approvingly quoted Kevin Drum’s brilliant takedown of George Bush as the “CEO President,” which punctured the notion that Bush’s Harvard MBA had taught him anything about managing in the real world (as if his resume prior to becoming Governor of Texas hadn’t done so already):

Bush styles himself a “CEO president,” but the world is full to bursting with CEOs who have goals they would dearly love to attain but who lack either the skill or the fortitude to make them happen. They assign tasks to subordinates without making sure the subordinates are capable of doing them — but then consider the job done anyway because they’ve “delegated” it. They insist they want a realistic plan, but they’re unwilling to do the hard work of creating one — all those market research reports are just a bunch of ivory tower nonsense anyway. They work hard — but only on subjects in their comfort zone. If they like dealing with people they can’t bring themselves to read all those tedious analyst’s reports, and if they like numbers they can’t bring themselves to spend time chattering with distributors about their latest prospect.

And most important of all, weak CEOs are unwilling to recognize bad news and perform unpleasant tasks to fix it — tasks like like confronting poorly performing subordinates or firing people. Good CEOs suck in their guts and do it anyway.

George Bush is, fundamentally, a mediocre CEO, the kind of insulated leader who’s convinced that his instincts are all he needs. Unfortunately, like many failed CEOs before him, he’s about to learn that being sure you’re right isn’t the same thing as actually being right.

I’ve been thinking about the value of gifted leaders and managers lately, because, as someone who has been in that world, I tend to think that way, and two recent readings have put the Barack Obama management and decision-making style front and center.

First was this article in the New York Times, which went through the long process by which Obama arrived at his Afghanistan strategy.

The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents. [snip]

…The president went around the room asking for opinions. Mr. Biden again expressed skepticism, even at this late hour when the tide had turned against him in terms of the troop number. But he had succeeded in narrowing the scope of the mission to protect population centers and setting the date to begin withdrawal. Others around the table concurred with the plan. Mr. Obama spoke last, but still somewhat elliptically. Some advisers said they walked out into the night after 10 p.m., uncertain whether the president had actually endorsed the Max Leverage option or was just testing for reaction. [snip]

Aides…said the arduous review gave Mr. Obama comfort that he had found the best course he could. “The process was exhaustive, but any time you get the president of the United States to devote 25 hours, anytime you get that kind of commitment, you know it was serious business,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser. “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

Years ago, Tom Kelley, who ran a Bay-area design firm called IDEO, wrote a book called The Art of Innovation.  I recommended it to my boss (the CFO of the company I worked for), not because he needed to innovate in the design realm, but because of Kelley’s simple, seemingly obvious advice about running a meeting. Which is, essentially, (a) don’t let anyone know what you think until (b) you make people talk in reverse order of hierarchy. The worst thing that can happen when you’re trying to find solutions, Kelley was saying, is for everyone to take their cues from the leader and shut off different solutions.

Which will be, if you ask me, the managerial epitaph of the Bush years.

Let’s go back to the Times article:

With the result uncertain, the outsize personalities on his team vied for his favor, sometimes sharply disagreeing as they made their arguments. ….

“The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.”

And then there’s the other insight into Obama as manager, which comes courtesy of David Plouffe’s campaign memoir, The Audacity to Win.  What struck me was Plouffe’s description of the campaign’s Pennsylvania post-mortem:

We had a meeting of the campaign’s senior staff at the Obama’s house the night after our brutal loss in Pennsylvania.  After the girls were in bed, ten of the senior staff gathered around the dining room table with Michelle and Barack.  Bowls of nuts laid out for us to munch on served as dinner, although few of us had any appetite.  The room was tense.

Obama started out by laying out what he could have done better in Pennsylvania. He did not spare himself and was particularly critical of his debate performance and having allowed s to get sucked into a tit-for-tat with Hillary.

So, to recap: you have an executive who is willing to criticize himself, is open to a vigorous debate and who will not punish those who take unpopular positions.

Coincidentally, Thirteen Days, the cinematic dramatization of the Cuban missile crisis, was on cable this weekend. While the parallels are imperfect, you had, in Kennedy, a young President, not trusted by the military, considered naive by some of the more seasoned veterans of the cold war, feeling boxed in by a situation he didn’t create and the consequences of appearing soft.

Two days before Kennedy’s October 22, 1962 announcement of the “quarantine” of Cuba, the military and CIA still wanted to take out the missile installations with an unannounced airstrike; the full logistics of the quarantine (which was, in fact, a blockade, and thereby an act of war) had not been fully vetted, and Kennedy had not made a final decision on which of those two courses to take. Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy’s UN Ambassador, suggested that someone be a coward, and proposed trading the missile batteries in Cuba for the United States’ outdated Jupiter missiles in Turkey.  (In the end, the down-the-road dismantling of the Jupiter missiles was part of the agreement which ended the crisis a little over a week later.) Afterwards, Bobby Kennedy is furious at Stevenson, but his brother stops him. “Somebody had to say it,” Kennedy noted. “I respect Adlai for having the guts to risk looking like an appeaser.”

There have been some idiotic articles written recently, suggesting that Joe Biden – one of the strongest voices against any Afghan escalation – is now on the outs in the White House, that his standing is diminished because the President chose a different direction.

If anything, I’d argue that with this President, Biden’s value has been enhanced. It’s clear Obama isn’t afraid of an internal debate, and it’s also clear he needs, as part of his process in finding comfort with his decisions, to be challenged.  As long as Biden is willing to do that, his value to Obama – and role in the White House – will be enhanced.

I have worked for organizations where everyone feared the wrath of the boss, and where mistakes, however minor, were covered up, and I have worked for companies where the culture understood that mistakes happened, worked to prevent their recurrence, and moved on.  I can tell you without hesitation that the latter culture is a much better candidate for long-term success.

A few days ago, I suggested that the notion of trust comes deeply into play in these moments where one person – in this case, the President – has better information than almost everyone else, and support requires an element of faith.

I don’t know if Barack Obama’s Afghanistan decision is the right one. But the decision was well made: the process was thorough, it was expansive as opposed to restrictive, and it took into account not only the ugly realities in Afghanistan, but the domestic needs that are being neglected due to our very expensive presence there.

We had eight years of a President who conquered doubt with the hallucination that he was taking dictation from God. It’s nice to have a President who dissects uncertainty, trying to find the best (or, perhaps, the least-worst) path through. That distinction between George Bush and his successor may not eliminate them, but inclines me to give Barack Obama, on this decision, the benefit of my doubts.

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