The problem with Eric Shinseki’s leadership style


(Photo by Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Eric Shinseki got the Jon Stewart treatment Monday, as the late-night comedian slammed the embattled Veterans Affairs chief's unemotional response in a Congressional testimony last week. Discussing the allegations of false record-keeping and long waiting lists at the VA that have prompted calls for his resignation, Shinseki told lawmakers he was "mad as hell" but wouldn't use stronger language out of "deference to the committee." Stewart mocked his expression of outrage: "“Your ‘mad as hell’ face looks like your ‘Uh-oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face,” he said.

Stewart may have been among the most critical, but even supporters of Shinseki have noted his "understated demeanor" and his "low-key personality." The widely admired retired four-star general has been called "self-contained and introverted," and the New York Times wrote that "'dignified' [is] the word most often used to describe him." Even a decade ago, when Shinseki candidly spoke out about troop levels in Iraq, a fellow Vietnam veteran said "he was a darn good military leader but not a very good politician."

That leadership style is one reason the Army Times is adding its voice to the chorus of those who think it's time Shinseki stepped down. "Shinseki has long been recognized as a behind-the-scenes leader, one who uses his influence outside the public eye," the Army Times editorial writes. "Unfortunately, that’s simply the wrong style for what VA needs now: a forceful, highly visible leader who publicly demands reforms and bluntly details the resources necessary to carry them out — someone who will hold people accountable, bruise egos when necessary and push hard to bring VA into the modern age."

But is that really what the VA needs internally? Or rather, what the public needs to see amid a disturbing scandal involving veterans who have given so much?

Within the VA, it's not clear that bruising egos and showing forceful authority would have changed things very much. The kind of reforms needed at the VA are deeply cultural and systemic. Might the organization be well served by a leader who jolts the place with emotional outrage, upends old practices and creates a sense of urgency over a crisis that has been brewing for years? Maybe, but it's hardly a sure thing.

Sometimes that kind of bruising leadership style is so radical that employees outright reject it. There are also structural issues, some of which are being taken up by legislation currently moving through Congress, that would stymie the efforts of any official at the VA regardless of leadership style. Employees there, writes Time's Joe Klein, operate within an "existing, antiquated civil-service system" where "they face practically zero threat of being fired. The President could ask for a temporary waiver of civil-service rules to clean up the mess at the VA, but that seems politically impossible."

Where a more forceful approach would have made a difference, though, is in the court of public opinion. The allegations over falsifying records, secret wait lists and the claims backlog are universally unsettling news to a public wary of soldiers' treatment after years of war. As a result, it's unclear how much longer Eric Shinseki will keep his job. On Wednesday, the president said the veterans affairs chief had put his "heart and soul" into improving the system for veterans, though seemed to leave the door open to his departure by speaking starkly about accountability. 

Seeing a more urgent, more emotional, more highly charged response at the top — whether in Shinseki's Congressional testimony, face-to-face meetings with veterans' families since the reports first surfaced, or through more high-profile demands for resignations within his agency — could have better positioned Shinseki as part of the solution rather than the problem.

Read also:

Resigned: The fast fall of a Washington career

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · May 21, 2014

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