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May 9, 2004 - The CEO President (folks are getting nervous)

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A few weeks ago in the magazine - Volume 2, Number 16 of Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Joseph, our American friend in France, commented


By the way, now that this thing has turned into the fiasco that most of us said it would, I wonder what your "unnamed friend" is saying these days...  Hey, the mistake is understandable.  We're a nation that admires CEOs, we wanted a CEO president.  Now that the nation and the armed services are being run efficiently, like a proper corporation (just forget how far we're in the red) I hope that we're all happy with the result. 


And I commented that Bush said he'd run the country as a CEO would, and Bush does have an MBA of course - but every company he was involved with went under.  There are CEO's - then there are CEO's. 

Robert Kagan, the neoconservative academic and Bush supporter is also thinking on this. 

See 'Lowering Our Sights'
Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page B07

Here’s Kagan’s take on such leadership. 


Bush himself is the great mystery in this mounting debacle.  His commitment to stay the course in Iraq seems utterly genuine.  Yet he continues to tolerate policymakers, military advisers and a dysfunctional policymaking apparatus that are making the achievement of his goals less and less likely.  He does not seem to demand better answers, or any answers, from those who serve him.  It's not even clear that he understands how bad the situation in Iraq is or how close he is to losing public support for the war, a support that once lost may be impossible to regain. 


Does that sound like a CEO to you? 

Kevin Drum, over at the Washington Monthly says it sure does.  Kevin must have worked for some pretty bad CEO type folks to say this:


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 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. 

So sure: George Bush is genuinely committed to winning in Iraq.  He just doesn't know how to do it and doesn't have the skills, experience, or personality to look beyond his own instincts in order to figure it out.  America is about to pay a heavy price for that.


So, you don’t have the skills, experience, or personality to look beyond your own instincts and you’re in a leadership position?  What do you do?  Delegate… and hope. 

Kevin Drum seems to have worked in the same sorts of organizations in which I’ve worked. 

Back in the eighties I worked for a dynamic woman at Hughes Aircraft – the company that later turned into Hughes Electronics, then became part of General Motors, then morphed into DirecTV and last year got sold to Rupert Murdoch.  Back then I worked for the Hughes Space and Communications Group, and we had two-thirds of the satellites and satellite payloads in orbit for two decades.  This was a class act.  The place was indeed full of rocket scientists.  Aircraft?  No, the Hughes Aircraft name had more to do with history.  Heck, the last airplane Hughes made had been nailed together in the mid-forties, the famous Spruce Goose – and it had flown once in 1948 down in Long Beach for all of a half-mile. 

Anyway, the reign of my dynamic boss, her time in power, ended badly - and I think it had something to do with her “George Bush” style of managing.  She would propose all sorts of grand ideas, and ask how we could implement these ideas.  So we’d have long staff meetings over many afternoons trying to figure out how to “make it so” – as the commander of the Starship Enterprise says to his crew. 

The problem was those of us on the staff who liked to suggest there were some problems we’d have to solve, that we should have contingency back-out plans and slack in the project schedules for unexpected events, even things as minor as illness keeping key players home for a day or two, or the real possibility a vendor might be late a day or two with something critical we really needed.  But we were the problem.  She didn’t want to hear the negative.  She didn’t like people who didn’t have a positive attitude.  She made us remove the slack from the project schedules – and we were told to not tell her, ever, of factors that might slow us down or stop us in any way.  She didn’t want to hear it.  She called this positive leadership – you had to believe anything could be done and not consider any obstacles.  The word was we can to this, not we can do this if…. 

Most everything we did, of course, didn’t quite work as planned, or just didn’t work at all.  Then she’d have a meeting and berate us all for not being sufficiently positive.  Our negative attitude had doomed us all.  Why couldn’t we be more like her?  You get the idea. 

How did that all end?  Oddly enough she was fired for theft of company property, a computer hard drive that she wanted for her Macintosh at home. 

When I see how Bush manages our country, I think of her. 


By the way, Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo read the Kevin Drum item above and adds this:


One of the things I've found difficult about writing about Iraq in recent days is imputing some level of seriousness to the arguments of the president and his retainers who continue to press an optimistic view of what's happening in Iraq.  From them, on any given day, you can still hear the argument that, notwithstanding some tough days, things are still getting better in Iraq and the key to success is sticking with it. 

At the same time, I talk to, or have conversations related to me with, various foreign policy, intelligence and military experts, all of whom --- across the political spectrum --- seem to believe that things are about as bleak as they can be.  On top of this, they seem uniform in the belief -- sometimes based on inference, other times based on direct knowledge -- that the White House is fresh out of ideas about what to do, and basically hasn't any idea how to proceed. 

Either the president knows the situation is that bad or he (and perhaps his advisors too) is just too out of touch to have any idea what's happening.  Increasingly, I think that the president is just too small-minded and vainglorious a man to come to grips with the situation. 

A strong president, a good president, would put his country before his pride and throw himself into saving the situation even if it meant admitting previous mistakes and ditching past policies and advisors.  But I don't think this president has the character to do that. 

Making a clean sweep, firing some of his most compromised advisors, admitting some past mistakes -- not for effect, but so that those mistakes could be more thoroughly and rapidly overcome -- might well doom the president politically.  But I doubt there's any question they'd be in the best interests of the country. 

This president seems either disinclined to or unable to do more than preside over a drift into disaster while putting on a game face. 


Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath, Josh. 

Marshall concludes with this:


There's all this talk about what might be the best critique of the president's policies (politically and substantively), what the best alternative policies might be, and so forth.  But all of that, I think, misses the point.  This president is too compromised by his deceptions, his past lack of accountability and his acquiescence in failed policies, ever to correct the situation.  Like C.S. Lewis's metaphor about the road to hell being easy to walk down, but the further walked, harder and harder to turn back upon, this president is just too far gone with misleading the public, covering up and indulging incompetence, and embracing venality ever to make a clean break and start retrieving the situation.


Oh, THAT’S real cheery. 


Of course, in my local newspaper you get this – a summary of what all these recent books about George Bush show about how he works –

See Books Depict Bush as Instinct-Driven Leader
Political experts say recent works by White House insiders reveal an absence of analysis in the president's decision-making style
Maura Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2004

Key items?  Well, there is the CEO business -


President Bush styles himself as the first CEO president, applying the rigor and authority of his MBA education to the job of chief executive of the nation. 

But that's not the picture that emerges from three recent insider accounts of the workings of the Bush administration, experts in decision-making and presidential management say.  On the contrary, they say, the president appears to have a highly personal working style, with little emphasis on systematic analysis of major decisions. 

"There seems to be almost an absence of any analytical or deliberative process for mapping the problem or exploring alternatives or estimating consequences," said Graham Allison, a professor of government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

And Bush appears to give greater weight to his own instincts than to experts or other sources of advice and information.  The president has a "bias for action," said Roderick M.  Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.  "I've been struck by [how] Bush's sense of personal identity as a leader shapes his decisions," he said.


Well, many argue a bias for action is a good thing.  Remember the words of Marge Simpson - "We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it."  The man has no French in him. 

Some paragraphs above I mentioned long meetings.  Bush doesn’t do those - or memos or any of that sissy stuff.  Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University is a bit amazed. 


Greenstein said that one striking thing about all three books was what they don't show.  There are few examples, for instance, of Bush presiding over meetings in which subordinates presented problems, weighed evidence and aired differing views. 

"I think a lot of policy is made on the fly," he said.  "It isn't a process in which people assemble and go back and forth in a rigorous way."

Another thing largely missing from the books was any indication that documents or memos weighing policy alternatives are circulated and discussed.  Harvard's Allison said one of the few documents the administration did prepare in advance of the Iraq war — the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iraq probably had weapons of mass destruction — was quickly compiled and not very well done. 

"The more it's examined, it seems quite sloppy," he said.  "At this point, if there had been some good analysis of the issues on paper, we would have seen some evidence of it. 

"The contrast with the textbook conception of informed decision making is distressing
," he said. 


Distressing?  Perhaps.  But “informed decision making” is probably overvalued.  That concept is not as important as resolve and determination.  The guy from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business explains – Bush is not following what everyone teaches these days in business school, but rather is being what people EXPECT a CEO to be – without the messy details. 


Stanford's Kramer said though Bush showed little interest in the kind of number-crunching analysis taught in business school, his style of management does conform to the popular image of chief executives as forceful and "decisive." "There seems to be a lot of value attached to showing resolve and demonstrating resolve," he said. 

But Jay Lorsch, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Decision Making at the Top," said the decision-making techniques taught at that school — from which Bush received an MBA — focus on understanding the nature of decisions, not simplifying them. 

"What we teach around here is that you've got to understand the complexity of the territory you're trying to affect," he said.  "You don't make a decision until you've surveyed all the possible ramifications.  The binary idea that you're either right or wrong is just foolishness."


Foolishness?  Bush is not following the Havard Business school methods, or the methods most every CEO actually uses? 

Well, let’s put it this way: Bush is not really a CEO.  He just plays one on TV. 

How so?  He’s got the moves down – Gordon Gecko, the Welch guy who used to run GE, the legendary Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap famous for dismantling Sunbeam and all sorts of other companies – like Donald Trump on his reality show “The Apprentice” - Bush cuts to the chase.  He plays the part of the decisive executive, as he understands it. 

In the Times a smattering of other business folks weigh in on Bush. 


"He doesn't like long meetings.  He likes truncated meetings.  That means you're not going to have the kinds of sessions … that are going to bring in lots of different kinds of information."


So?  Who needs it? 


"The decisiveness part is certainly there.  The imperviousness to facts and analysis is also there.  So what we have is someone who is going on raw instinct."


So?  Facts bog you down. 


Bush appears to rest his confidence in a few people whose judgment corresponds to his gut instincts.  He seems to be obsessive about being decisive, but willing to make hard and fast decisions on the basis of ideology more than evidence."


So?  He believes in what he is doing.  Folks like that about him. 

All these people from the top business schools seem to think the president would flunk out of their programs because although he plays at being a fine CEO, he doesn’t really get the quite basic concepts of what a CEO actually does. 

But he’s president, and they are not, and never will be.  They can chat with this Times reporter all they want, and complain Bush is giving every CEO in America a bad name.  It doesn’t matter. 

The bottom line – something you think a CEO refers to all the time as he leans across the conference table, sweeps all the paper aside, all the analyses and project plans and contingency documents and all that stuff, scowls at his quivering subordinates and growls, slowly and menacingly, “So, what’s the bottom line?” Great drama! 

The bottom line here is that the nation prefers the “popular concept” of the decisive leader to the real thing.  Image trumps substance every time. 

Most folks would vote for Donald Trump for president if he ran for the office.  And Trump has considered it.  But Trump, to his credit, figured out that although he knows lots about real estate and finance and such things, and knows a lot about fading European models, as he tends to marry those when he can, he doesn’t know jack about running the most powerful nation in the world, about international relations and geopolitics, about the history and needs of our allied nations and those who give us trouble, about the ways congress passes laws or doesn’t, about the role of the courts and the constitutional questions that keep coming up – all that stuff. 

George Bush never did figure out he didn’t know much of that stuff, and he doesn’t seem to want to learn it now.  One would assume he thought that with his father’s old friends and advisors as his subordinates all around him that all of those pesky details really didn’t matter. 

Some of us think they do matter, but like the business school professors, we aren’t the president and never will be.  Heck, who would want the job?


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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