War Management Follows the Wrong Corporate Model
By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page E01
There are lots of ways to explain why the Bush administration has made a hash of its Iraq policy. To my mind, however, this is fundamentally a story about management failure and a corporate leadership style that the first MBA president and his crew of former CEOs brought to Washington.
Or think of it this way: The reason the world's only superpower is stuck in the mud in Iraq is the same reason Xerox got into trouble with accounting, why Wall Street analysts and investment bankers didn't blow the whistle on WorldCom and Enron, and why much of the magic has gone out of Disney's Magic Kingdom.
Such generalizations are dangerous. But over the years I've noticed that companies that get into trouble, or lose their edge, have many of the same characteristics at the top: an overemphasis on hierarchy and orderliness; a penchant for secrecy and keeping decisions closely held; an instinct to discount information or dismiss views that don't comport with the company line; a habit of pronouncing rather than engaging intellectually with those outside the inner circle; an unhealthy arrogance and sense of entitlement.
When something goes wrong, the all-too-typical corporate response is to downplay its importance or bury it in bureaucratic processes. And if that doesn't work, the next line of defense is to pin it all on a few "bad apples" and move aggressively to "put the issue behind us," without ever really admitting serious error.
That should sound familiar to anyone who has watched Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Snow on C-SPAN, or read Paul O'Neill's account of his ill-fated attempts to warn of the budgetary fallout from a second tax cut, or heard what Richard Clarke told the 9/11 commission about warnings of terrorist attacks that fell on deaf ears. It also describes to a T the process by which the administration has dealt with Iraq, from the original decision to go to war to the handling of the prison scandal.
Here's a little test: You are president of the United States and revelations about abuse of Iraqi prisoners has created the biggest crisis since Sept. 11, inflaming the Arab world, undercutting support at home and undermining our moral authority in the world. How do you spend the weekend?
If you answered "spend it at Camp David as planned, then drop in at the Pentagon on Monday to praise the defense secretary for doing a superb job," you just flunked, along with George W. Bush.
Noel Tichy, a management expert at the University of Michigan, notes that when Jack Welch faced a crisis when he was chief executive of General Electric, he would drop everything he was doing, scramble his audit team and descend on the problem unit. Over a weekend, he would conduct his own detailed investigation. And on Monday morning he would show up personally at the Pentagon or the SEC with a report on what went wrong, who would be fired and what he was going to do to make things right.
Something like that would never occur to Bush. His view of the leader's role is to set broad goals and vision, delegate everything else to trusted subordinates and stay the course when things don't go exactly to plan. But as Michael Maccoby, a Washington psychoanalyst and management consultant explains, it is that unwillingness to get into the details and the lack of interest in hearing divergent views that create a kind of ideological rigidity, rendering Bush incapable of admitting mistakes or considering changes in direction.
The Bush team likes to crow that it brought disciplined, private-sector management to government. But as Joshua Marshall wrote last year in the Washington Monthly, theirs turns out to be a largely discredited, old-economy management style -- one better suited for the cartel-like oil, drug and railroad industries they came from than the messy, fast-changing realities facing the government of the United States.
Steven Pearlstein will lead a Live Online discussion at 11 a.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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