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06/17/2007

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N.E.Hatfield

All this seems to be the sine qua non of our modern organizational age. Perhaps there is more to Parkinson's Law, the Peter Principle, and Dilbert's Law and their derivatives than we care to admit. So is mediocrity any surprise?

Alan Mills

Good analysis. I only add that high level governmental positions seem fundamentally different than private sector leadership positions as government officials such as cabinet members and certainly presidents have real policychoices which they must make.

In the private sector, the "policy" is straightforward--make a profit. In the public sector, there are a multiplicity of choices--bring democracy to Iraq, ensure a pro-US government, supress terrorists--each of which entails a whole different set of questions regarding effective implimentation.

Skill in carrying out the profit objective in the private sector need not translate into making wise policy choices. These seem very different "skill"--if you can consider making policy choices a skill at all.

Andrew

First, for some comic relief watch this YouTube clip where Bill Maher does a routine related to this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0sNJhphi7U

Second, I think Becker is right on. To be a successful leader/president, one must have intelligence, adequate social skills, AND emotional intelligence (EQ). To argue which is more important is like arguing about whether the engine or the tires are more important parts of a car. Without both parts working together, the car will not move.

For example, Donald Rumsfeld seems like an intelligent man to me. But according to retired generals who have worked with him (and whom I believe), he is also tremendously arrogant and refuses to admit making any sort of mistake, nor will he allow anyone else to suggest an idea that is better than one of his. I think Colin Powell may have been referring to this in an interview I read where he said something along the lines of "I don't like politics because I'm used to being in the military. For example, if the plan was to march straight ahead and we were ambushed from the side, we would simply change our plans. I'm not used to being in that sort of situation and hearing people say 'Well, although we're being attacked from the side, we'll be perceived as weak and incompetant if we change our plan, so we have to pretend that the ambush from the side isn't happening and just keep marching straight.'"
In any event, no matter how intelligent someone is, if his ego is so fragile that he cannot admit to making any sort of oversight or that someone else had a better idea, he cannot be a successful leader in the long run (he must be able to "flip-flop"). I think this is one of the main reasons why Rumsfeld and the vast majority of the members of the Bush Administration have been such catastrophic failures. I do not think it is because they were too intelligent.

(Halliburton's stock price has more than quadrupled and the energy industry, with which this Administration has been closely tied, has been making record profits. So if a large part of their REAL goal was to make money for themselves and their friends, I am sure that, at the end of the day, they will have the last laugh.)

As for Larry Summers, it sounds like he is a textbook example of someone who should have been a successful leader but had inadequate social skills. For example, of the parts of his highly politically incorrect speech that I have heard, everything he said was true. However, despite being correct (i.e., intelligent), it seems that he carried out his message in such a way that his poor social skills overshadowed the sound logic on which his idea was based.

Dag von Lubitz

Has anyone in the academic circles ever heard of John Boyd and his OODA Loop? The tools for successful leadership in any environment, and under any circumstances, are all there, clearly depicted. And, providing an inquisitive and open mind is in place, not even difficult to use! Timidity, political correctness, and lack of vision disguised by copious application of slogans are among the most effective brakes to effective leadership. When supported by lack of erudition other than the narrow, purely professional one the result is a predictable disaster.

Professional brilliance is patently insufficient when dealing with "the blue world yonder." Curiously, while Wall Street begins to realize (slowly) that the "generalist" background is a far more consistent predictor of success at the top, universities consistently on ever narrower specializations tailored to the trends of the moment (how many MB-something do we now have?) We begin to fail spectacularly in equipping our students with the broadest range of intellectual tools critical for their survival in the society whose fads will be different from those of today. We fail to make them think, observe, and combine all intellectual inputs instead of the mot obvious (or dogmatically accepted) ones. The result? Had anyone bothered to study the subject prior to the glad acceptance of a “little war for democracy and freedom,” we would not be in Iraq today. All indicators for a policy of an entirely different nature were in front of our collective eyes, but only few (and most of them the serving senior officers in the armed forces) saw the range of almost insolvable problems ahead, and gave warning.

Ours is the world of progressively increasing academic dogma, form, and adherence to unwritten rules that at times seem to be almost medieval. In the world of “academic accomplishment” cherished by the ever increasing number of search committees, Brunelleschi would never be allowed to build the dome of Florence's duomo. The committee would duly note the applicant had no prior record of major achievement in architecture, his scholarly output in the field was greatly deficient, and his lack of “demonstrable qualifications” was compounded by the fact that the fellow was quarrelsome, definitively not a team player, and clearly the opponent of "you have to walk before you can run" dogma. I therefore suggest that every faculty member at an institution of higher learning makes a pilgrimage to Florence, looks at the dome, and reflects on what a vision, passion, talent, combined with daring regulatory bodies can do.

Currently, we do not produce leaders but managers. Unfortunately, even among those, most are mediocre and useful only at times of perfect equilibrium. Consequently, even a minor crisis has the potential of becoming a major disaster accompanied by the subsequent spin, scapegoat searches, demands for apologies and contrition, and thunderous insistence on resignations of “all responsible.” Ultimately, the survivors reach the status ante and pray the remaining tenure at the helm expires free of upheavals of any kind. Too often survival instinct stands too firmly in the way of courage, ethics, and the common sense. Need a proof? Re-read the history of Katrina and its aftermath.

David Ashbaugh, MD

Both your comments and those of Posner are excellent. Cognitive knowledge can be acquired by almost anyone although some are very much better than others, accumulating large amounts of data from various sources and being able to access and collate this data into cogent arguments for or against some particular question. These people, as you note, are generally conceded to be brilliant and successful in their chosen field. Others, less brilliant, but gifted with people skills, may also be successful, as you have noted. Last of all, much more rare and much more valuable, is wisdom. This is the successful melding of cognitive skills, people skills and a varied background of work in many settings. The wise person who ascends to a leadership position, and is still able take decisive action is very rare and I can only include Abraham Lincoln in this group among our presidents. In the academic and private parts of my career, I watched with dismay, as brilliant researchers or likable political types rose to administrative positions beyond their competence, while wiser persons, were left on the sidelines. I guess that this will always be so, as the wise often lack the drive and ambition to achieve “greatness”, or perhaps they have the insight that “greatness” is a goal not worth achieving

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