Thursday, February 9, 2012

Leadership: Better Over Time?

Mr. James Fallows, the writer for the Atlantic, recently wrote an article on the President and his performance over the past three years and offered thoughts on why President Obama has acted as he has over that time period, but then finished with the thought that President Obama, if re-elected, will become the President that he – Fallows – voted for in 2008.

James Fallows has had a long and distinguished career as an historian and writer on defense, security and policy. But in this particular case I submit that he is simply wrong. And it has nothing at all to do with whether President Obama is Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Rather, it has to do with leadership, and two simple facts about leaders over time.

The first fact is that leaders do NOT learn on the job. Yes, every single human being who takes over a job enters the job not knowing many – and in some cases most – of the specifics of the job, and not knowing how they will act and how they will decide in various cases. And they all experience a fairly steep learning curve during their first six months to year in their job. This is particularly true of major executive positions. The Presidency would be an extreme example of this.

After the first year the ‘slope of the learning curve’ starts to flatten out – you learn less. Part of this is simply that all leaders will have developed a routine, and more and more items can fit into the routine, and that means there are fewer ‘new events’ to learn from. Partly too there is a psychological resistance to continual change and the leader, looking for an opportunity to affect change (assuming he wants to) will try to stop reacting and attempt to act freely. And that will mean pushing more and more into already defined decision templates. In short, we try, like Cinderella’s Sisters, to make the shoe fit. (That this can lead to poor decisions is a given, though that isn’t the point of this article.

Over time, as more and more unforeseen events impinge on the leader, and as time passes, the leader will start to take a position of nearly complete response to events, rather than trying to lead the events. And the reason for this is simple: it is the path of least resistance. (There may still be great resistance, but this path offers the least).

The second fact is that leaders do not recognize that they are doing this while they are doing this. (This may not be 100% true, but the few people that I have seen who cold critically analyze their own performance – while in the job – were a) brilliant, b) devoid of any ego, and c) in jobs that did not suffer from any major\ outside commentary and hence performance pressure – they were surgeons, fighter pilots, and special forces operators.)

Improving one’s leadership performance takes place when you have had 1) serious leadership experience, and 2) an opportunity to analyze that experience and identify specifically what actions you took, what worked, why it worked, what didn’t work, and why it didn’t work. That process takes time and discipline. For those in charge of large, complex organizations, it is impossible, without a very disciplined support organization, to anything of the sort. (The one exception to this rule is on the military; when large organizations (airwings, carrier strike groups, brigade combat teams, etc.) engage in advanced training, the training is accompanied by very detailed data collection and equally detailed ‘Lessons Learned’ analysis and debriefs. Commanders of units ostensibly can learn and improve from these debriefs though the record isn’t necessarily as cut and dried as you might think. Most commanders will silently respond with the ‘I knew that’ defense, and then continue much as before. What has happened is that many of their subordinates have learned and thereby improved incrementally.

In large organizations, be they corporations or government agencies, the simple truth is that leaders do not improve while on the job, and they do not change materially after the first 11-18 months (sometimes 2 years). Their improvement takes place when they get their second job (the mayor leaves office, two years later is elected governor) after having had a chance to reflect on their previous performance and having identified, if only to themselves, that ‘next time I would do it differently.’

At the same time, in any organization, large or small, leadership over extended periods of time almost always means the leader grows stale. A man who is president of a company for 10, 12 or 14 years, or mayor, or head of a charity for similar periods of time rapidly becomes stale. His leadership does not improve, it becomes simply more capable of handling the routine, and that masquerades as leadership competence. Are there means to instill a continuing improvement of the leadership and performance? Yes, but it requires several steps, most importantly disciplined planning and a very lean organization, neither of which are present in most large organizations, and certainly not in any federal government organization.

In short, Mr. Fallows is a fine writer, but his assessment is, in my humble opinion, founded on too distant a relationship with the real difficulties of leadership. I have spent my life leading, and being among leaders.  I wish leaders could improve as he implies, the world would probably be a much better place. But my experience has been that they don’t.


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