Our Own Ministry of Silly Walks

The problem is that getting old and useless provides perspective. Leaving teaching – which was so pleasant so many years ago – for the business world – made the idea of trying to discuss Dickens with surly fifteen-year-olds seem quite mad. But sometimes you missed it. It was kind of cool in its own absurdity. But then there were those with whom you worked, the other teachers – the profession attracts the eccentric. Or maybe there was no other place for them – the perpetually childish still stuck in adolescence, because for most Americans that was the only time in life when things seemed wonderful, or the wooly-headed theorists of big questions no one else would listen to, or the hippy-dippy idealists, or the social-justice idealists, or the perpetually drunk Irishman smitten with Yeats or whatnot, or the many troubled and defensive would-be bullies who finally found whole classrooms full of those who could not fight back, because they weren’t allowed to fight back. There’s a place for everyone, of course, but this was like living through a Monty Python skit, from September through June each year. You didn’t see that when you were in the skit, and one of the characters in the skit. But there might as well have been a Ministry of Silly Walks.

The business world was different. People were focused and deadly serious, about making money, or about the product, or about the process of making either. There was no place for eccentricity. And that was like a slap in the face – you woke up, and you got deadly serious and focused. But getting elbowed out of that world, what with all the mergers and acquisitions and outsourcing and reorganizations, and deciding that was for the best and retirement didn’t really have to wait, also adds perspective. Being old and useless has that one perk. You can look back and finally ask yourself that question – What was THAT about?

It’s a natural question. Each morning the Los Angeles Times lands with a thump at the front door, and there is the business section. A few years ago the daily Dilbert cartoon in that section was incisive satire on real life – those things actually happened, all the time, and damn, Jim actually was the pointy-haired boss, down to the last detail. It was scary, or exhilarating, or something. But now it just seems odd. Do people really live in that world? Do such things really happen? And then it was like looking back on that decade of teaching.

But now the oddest thing in the business section is the occasional review of the latest book on business, almost always the next big book on business leadership, or leadership in general. There’s a whole industry devoted to those books – executives read them, middle-managers read them, as do first-time supervisors, as do Army officers and others, trying to get an edge, or trying to find out why they don’t have one. A lot of it is how-I-made-it-big stuff from Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch or Ken Lay or whoever is hot at the moment, so maybe not Tiger Woods or Ken Lay now. Some of it is management and organizational theory, but much of it is on management style and leadership skills – it all blends together in a stew of advice about what successful people do and you should be doing too. Folks eat it up. Everyone was to know the secret.

What seems odd is that there is no secret. A long time ago everyone was reading Tom Peters – but the secret wasn’t Management by Walking Around.

Now understand that when an English teacher leaves the profession and lands a job in industry – say, with an aerospace conglomerate in Los Angeles – that former teacher is going to land in Training and Organizational Development. And there the job will start out with presenting endless leadership development workshops to first-time supervisors, involving slick prepackaged video-based interactive role-playing stuff, intended to let these guys know the secret to running their little part of the large corporation smoothly and effectively.

But it doesn’t work. Those who are good with people and calm problem-solvers don’t need it – save for the minor sections on policies and procedures – and those who are inflexible jerks will never get it. Effective leadership, although it involves certain skills, is not a skill set. It’s more like a personality disorder. It can’t be learned, so there’s a reason the guys called the whole thing Charm School. It was about as useful. Proper etiquette can be learned. Charm cannot be learned.

And there are those book reviews in the business section of the Los Angeles Times, on the secret(s) of effective business leadership – in a fast-dying newspaper that’s dropped section after section and had to let go of a quarter of its staff as it nears bankruptcy. Is no one there reading these books?

Or maybe the books are useless – like most feel-good self-help books, designed to allow you to imagine something way cool, that you too could be a stunning success, and to allow the author and the publishing house to make a sweet, easy profit. The model is the sports hero book – the couch-potato reads about how some baseball pitcher got it together and pitched that no-hitter in the World Series. It’s escapist stuff.

But just as everyone has an opinion on that sort of thing – that intentional walk to Bruiser Malone to set up the double play was a cool idea – so everyone has their opinion on management issues. And of course the target is now Obama, as with the Gulf oil spill no one seems happy with how he’s handling things. And he is America’s manager, so everyone has an opinion.

In Politico, see Glenn Thrush and Carol Lee with Spill Tests Obama Management Style:

Barack Obama has done more to expand government than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, but the Gulf oil crisis is testing his ability to master the federal bureaucracy in a way no other crisis has with decidedly mixed results. … People who have worked closely with Obama say he doesn’t think like a bureaucrat, is far more interested in changing the way Washington works than in understanding its machinations and isn’t excited by the kind of gears-of-government reforms that interested a previous generation of Democrats, particularly Al Gore. … Administrations are defined, fairly or not, by their capacity to control stagnant backwater agencies.

Ah, so the secret to it all is controlling stagnant backwater agencies. Who knew? Someone should write a book.

But Frank Rich in the New York Times, the former theater critic, says that not the secret. He knows the secret – Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even.

We didn’t teach that to the young lads who had suddenly been promoted to supervisor, but Rich is big on this:

It turns out there is something harder to find than a fix for BP’s leak: Barack Obama’s boiling point. The frantic and fruitless nationwide search for the president’s temper is now our sole dependable comic relief from the tragedy in the gulf. …

We still want to believe that Obama is on our side, willing to fight those bad corporate actors who cut corners and gambled recklessly while regulators slept, Congress raked in contributions, and we got stuck with the wreckage and the bills. But his leadership style keeps sowing confusion about his loyalties, puncturing holes in the powerful tale he could tell.

His most conspicuous flaw is his unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team … By now, he also should have learned that the best and the brightest can get it wrong – and do.

So he should drop the consensus stuff and just slap some folks around, particularly the big shots. That’s leadership, and it’s not charm that does the trick.

Tom Maguire at JustOneMinute somewhat agrees:

One of Obama’s few job-related skills is his ability to run a meeting in which a wide variety of viewpoints are aired and a consensus is forged. Unfortunately, one might worry that his typical experience is in forging a consensus related to relatively abstract ideas. Bringing a Harvard Law Review meeting together on some legal question (e.g., capital punishment) is ultimately a matter of exposing the participants to a range of facts and opinions in order to change minds. If views are fairly aired, people’s minds are changed, and people who once disagreed leave in agreement then the meeting is a success.

However, problems like the Gulf oil well are impervious to Obama’s well-formed opinions and judgments, and physical reality takes over. The consensus answer to capping a leaking well is irrelevant – what counts is the right answer.

Obama has the wrong skill set, even if he has the charm.

But Frank Rich also says this:

If Obama is to have a truly transformative presidency, there could be no better catalyst than oil. Standard Oil jump-started Progressive Era trust-busting. Sinclair Oil’s kickback-induced leases of Wyoming’s Teapot Dome oilfields in the 1920s led to the first conviction and imprisonment of a presidential cabinet member (Harding’s interior secretary) for a crime committed while in the cabinet. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 sped the conservation movement and search for alternative fuels. The Enron scandal prompted accounting reforms and (short-lived) scrutiny of corporate Ponzi schemes.

Ah, Obama should be Teddy Roosevelt, or something, and Time’s Joe Klein adds this:

Rich doesn’t offer any policy prescriptions. And the first that comes to mind – a stiff tax on fossil fuels (with the money returned to the public in the form of lower payroll taxes) – is wildly controversial. But Rich is right: it’s time to confront this cancer head on.

Ah, no intentional walk! And, after all, Obama has “unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team.”

But Maguire sees it differently:

Obama trusted BP and he trusted Goldman Sachs, but, per Rich, Obama needs to save his Presidency by becoming a new Teddy Roosevelt, bashing Big Business at every opportunity. Yeah, that will restore business confidence and create jobs.

It seems everyone is a management expert, but then so is Richard Einhorn:

From what I can tell, Rich wants to make the argument that Obama is listening to people who come from his own class, meaning Ivy League-educated with impressive mainstream resumes. I have no problem with that. I think it’s true that Obama has a “misplaced trust in elites.” But Rich elides some terms: he starts by describing the “experts” Obama relies on and ends up talking about the same people as “elites,” as if the terms are in some sense equivalent. I have a lot of problems with that. Worse, Rich has a lot of problems with that. It leads him into sheer silliness.

By conflating elitism and expertise, Rich’s first bad assumption is in thinking that the elites Obama is listening to are, in fact, experts. Clearly they are not. … Obama needs to insist upon hearing from genuine experts – that is, from people who can be objective. The notion that experts are elitists and can’t be trusted is a canard. If good analysis and proposals comes from a professor teaching at the elite Princeton University – say his name is Paul Krugman – Obama should listen carefully. Ditto if the professor’s teaching at a non-Ivy League university – NYU’s Nouriel Roubini. Rich is aware that there might be something wrong with the advice Obama’s getting. But he’s wrong to locate that blame in expertise. That is not the problem: the problem is that the advice Obama is getting is elitist and not that expert.

Okay, the secret to it all is accepting expert advice, no matter who gives it. But Einhorn goes further:

A second, and much worse, false assumption Rich makes is that there is some kind of contrast between Obama’s “blind faith in his own Ivy League kind” – and Bush’s “go-with-the-gut bravado.” The first clue that this can’t be a real dichotomy is that it is simply laughable for Rich to suggest that anyone, let alone a president of the United States, should be more Bush-like in his decision-making. In fact, it is quite clear from what Rich himself writes that the real problem here is that Obama already shares far too much with Bush’s style.

Whereas Bush had a misplaced faith in his infallible gut, Obama has a misplaced faith in his infallible “Ivy League kind.” Therefore, the real problem with both presidents is their over-reliance on faith-based decision-making, the classic fallacy of over-valuing authority. They are both behaving quite irrationally. The solution is for Obama to be more rational and seek more diverse experts. It’s certainly not to be more like Bush…

If Obama better recognized his fundamental error of mistaking high authority (and right-leaning centrism) with expert knowledge and advice, it would enable him to seek a wider array of opinions.

Okay then, the real secret to successful management is to not trust authoritative judgments, but to instead trust actual authorities in the matter, who aren’t recognized as authorities – or something.

But Einhorn, a noted composer actually, clarifies that:

To be sure, there certainly is a correlation between expertise and impressive resumes. You don’t become head of an oil company if you know as much as I do about petroleum. However, the correlation is by no means exact. Not every financial expert is a billionaire; likewise, many rich people got that way because they simply were lucky.

If your job is to make complicated decisions based upon imperfect knowledge and reliance on others’ expertise, it behooves you to consult different experts, then weigh their advice and fashion a plan. It is in the weighing and the overall planning that the decision-maker’s expertise and experience plays a crucial role. No one who understands how to consistently make good decisions – sure, your gut can get lucky – would call such a process a “gut” call, in the sense used to describe Bush. It may be a quick decision, but the process has little to do with Rich’s call for some bravado or guts. Rather, it is a job for a very thoughtful person.

Okay then, the real secret to successful management is being thoughtful, and has nothing to do with bravado or guts and being all Texan about it. But Einhorn sees two other problems for Obama:

First is the incredibly restricted information he receives and values, limited to the right, the right of center, and the corporate right. There are many reasons for this – among them his own proclivities as a moderate, and his staff’s.

The second major problem is Obama’s reaction to the political climate. That climate is awful: A rampaging rightwing, a cowed and uninvolved center, and thoroughly marginalized liberals. Obama responds to this, not as we liberals would like, by setting an agenda but by trying to negotiate some common ground between all these players. Like every other liberal, I know that’s impossible. Obama, whatever the reasons, doesn’t think so. Perhaps he’s worried the right really will tear the country apart. Perhaps it’s just a personality thing and he’s more trustworthy and less cynical than me. … As a result, nearly every liberal I know has grown increasingly frustrated with him…

The answer to the first problem is to increase the number and range of experts. The solution to the second is to abandon so much as a semblance of bipartisanship and instead create policies, based on expert advice, that depend as little as possible upon the non-existent good faith of bad political actors.

The first solution is easy. The second, very difficult. But nothing useful will come from following Rich’s advice.

Yep everyone has an opinion, and will tell you what the secret is. But see Kevin Drum:

In his inauguration speech Barack Obama told America “the time has come to set aside childish things.” At least, I thought he was talking to America. But maybe he was really talking to the DC press corps. A few months after that speech, during a press briefing where NBC’s Chuck Todd kept badgering him to provide an immediate response to the Iranian election crisis, he finally snapped back, “I know everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle. I’m not.” The message from a president who had already famously rebuked the short attention spans and inane cable chatter that absorbs official Washington could hardly have been clearer: only children demand simple answers and immediate reactions to complex situations. So how about if we act like adults instead?

Ah, the secret is that there is no secret and we should all just grow up:

There are plenty of things about the government’s response to the gulf oil spill that are worth questioning. Why is the Minerals Management Service still in such sorry shape? Why was BP allowed to misstate the extent of the spill for so long? Are chemical dispersants just making the problem worse? Why is the press still being given the runaround more often than not?

But one thing isn’t in question: when it comes to actually capping the broken pipe, BP and the rest of the oil industry are doing everything they can. What’s more, they’re the ones with all the expertise and President Obama can’t change that. Yelling at BP or putting on a mask of faux outrage for the benefit of the cameras won’t change that.

But Drum points out that this is unlikely:

At a press briefing, CBS’s Chip Reid asked, “Have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no.” Maureen Dowd insisted that Obama’s job is “being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.” David Gergen counseled Obama to “take command” of the oil spill and Mark Penn demanded that Obama put a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with a solution: “think Manhattan Project meets Independence Day, with fewer aliens and more eggheads.” These suggestions range from useless to idiotic. As Clive Crook put it, “Apparently it is a great idea to elect a president who is calm in a crisis, except when there’s a crisis. Then what you need is somebody to lead the nation in panic.”

In a way this is like opening the business section of the Los Angeles Times and skimming the review of the latest book on the secret to devastatingly effective management, and getting it confused with the Dilbert cartoon one column-inch above it. Even if your last ten years at work were spent as a senior systems manager, now that you stepped away from that, you do tend to giggle. Everyone has the answer, and no one does – because there isn’t one.

Drum ends with this:

Obama is famous for taking the long view of things. If you do the actual mechanics of governing properly, he believes, the daily media storms will all blow over eventually. Maybe he’s right. At the moment, though, betting on the American media to grow up is looking like long odds indeed.

But to put it in perspective, no, that won’t happen. And the public won’t grow up either. And at the end of two long careers, one in academia and on in industry, you begin to realize it’s all a bit of a Monty Python skit. And if some pundit on Fox News suggests it’s time for America to have its own Ministry of Silly Walks, because that’s the real secret, no one should be surprised.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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