Leaders and managers [Archives:2008/1148/Opinion]

April 21 2008

Joseph S. Nye
For the first time in decades, a United States senator will become the next American president as all three of the remaining candidates – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain – are members of the Senate. While legislators have many leadership skills, their management ability is usually unproven. Senators manage a roughly 100-member staff, and a campaign staff of several hundreds. But can they manage an executive branch employing millions?

Contemporary management theory tends to distinguish between leadership and management, and places greater emphasis on leaders. Managers are described as those who merely embrace processes and seek stability, while leaders tolerate risk and create change. Organizations need both, but leaders are more important. As one expert puts it, a guiding coalition with good managers but poor leaders will not succeed. Good leaders construct teams that combine these functions, making sure to hire subordinates who can compensate for the leader's managerial deficiencies.

More recently, there has been renewed interest in leaders as managers. After all, vision without implementation is ineffective. Leaders need enough managerial skill to assure that systems are in place to provide the information required for good decisions as well as effective implementation. An effective leader manages and shapes the context of decisions by creating and maintaining well-designed systems.

Organizational skill is the ability to manage the structures, information flows, and reward systems of an institution or group. Leaders directly manage those who report to them, and they manage indirectly by establishing and maintaining systems for their institutions. This includes the encouragement of leadership at lower levels in their organizations.

Good leaders must manage their inner circle of advisers to ensure an accurate flow of information and influence. They must avoid the “emperor's trap” of hearing only about the beauty of their new clothes. Ironically, George W. Bush, the first president with an MBA, was weaker on this dimension than his father, who knew how to manage an able group of advisers. Stephen Hadley, Bush's second National Security Adviser is quoted as saying about Bush's first term, “I give us a 'B-' for policy development and a 'D-' for policy execution.”

Experts argue that well designed systems are like stage directions in a play. They encourage actors to make correct entrances and exits without being told. But stage directions are not enough. People always try to bend systems to their own purposes, and good leaders play a critical role in maintaining their systems' integrity. If top leaders do not monitor their systems to ensure that they are producing full and accurate information flows, the systems are likely to become distorted by the most powerful subordinates. For example, President George H. W. Bush's National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, made sure that powerful cabinet secretaries had full access to the president.

Under Bush the younger, many of the same strong personalities were involved, but the formal National Security Council system became distorted, producing a truncated flow of information. Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff described the situation as furtive and camouflaged by the inefficiency of the formal decision-making process. Or, in the words of Army General Wayne Downing, who worked in the White House, “over the years, the interagency system has become so lethargic and dysfunctional that it inhibits the ability to apply the vast power of the US government on problems. You see this inability to synchronize in our operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan, across our foreign policy, and in our response to Katrina.”

The organizational skills required for leaders as managers should not be confused with the efficiency or tidiness of a well-run organization. Nor should it be restricted to hierarchical bureaucratic organizations. Leaders of social movements also need to manage the inward and outward flows of information. In this broad sense, organization and management refer to leaders' ability to ensure an accurate inflow and outflow of information for making and implementing decisions. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency.

Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, ran an inefficient organization with overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities. It was costly in many ways, but it assured him of multiple, competing flows of information. Roosevelt never thought that staffs had a monopoly on judgment or information, and has been described as seeking advice from anybody he could: cabinet members, congressmen, newspaper columnists, interest groups, citizens, and friends.

Dwight Eisenhower ran an efficiently organized presidency that some at the time believed lacked leadership, but historians later discovered his hidden hand behind most important decisions. Ronald Reagan practiced extreme delegation, which worked when he had an able team in place, but turned into a disaster when Donald Regan, John Poindexter, and Oliver North took over. While Reagan excelled in vision, communication, and emotional intelligence, he lacked the skills of leadership as management. Successful leaders combine these skills so that unfiltered bad news can reach them and be acted upon promptly.

Looking at the three senators running for president, John McCain has military experience, but as an aviator rather than a commander. Hillary Clinton has experience living close to decision-making in the White House, but not as the decision-maker. Barack Obama has experience living overseas and working as a community organizer in Chicago, but not in the executive branch. As elected legislators, all have demonstrated the “soft power” skills of attracting others to vote for them, but as for whether they will also be manager-leaders, the jury is still out.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author most recently of The Powers to Lead.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.