Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leadership and Experiments

In David Sanger's News Analysis in the NYT on Saturday, an anonymous person, described by Sanger as "a member of the Obama foreign policy team" was quoted as saying "there's going to be no time for experimentation."

Wrong, both on the substance and on the mindset.

In both foreign policy and the domestic economy, the country is facing new challenges. Iraq is not Afghanistan. Iran is not North Korea. This economic turndown is not like the recession of the 1980s or the Great Depression of the 1930s. Obama and his team can learn from the mistakes that were made in all those prior situations, but fighting the last war, literally and figuratively, is a profound mistake. Each of these challenges is new. The current repertoire is not adequate to the task. Anyone who thinks they know the solution ought to be barred from the meetings. This country needs to run a series of experiments, such as engaging with the enemies abroad, putting more pressure on Israel to give their politicians the courage to do what they should have been doing long ago, and trying a whole bunch of ideas to deal with the most intractable problems at home, education as well as the economy, carefully monitoring them, making mid-course corrections when needed, or abandoning them wholesale when they appear to be going awry.

The series of bailout initiatives are a case-in-point. If Paulson and Bernanke look they do not know what they are doing, it is because they do not know what they are doing. They have never been here before. All we can ask of them is that they make their best guess at the moment, run experiments, and see how they go. That's what they have been doing and the strongest argument for Geithner at Treasury is that he is a smart guy who does not seem flustered by having to change the strategy again and again until he gets it right. Similarly, Clinton at State is a good idea precisely because she has very little experience making foreign policy and has the potential to create a formidable team with the President. She's a risk worth taking, because the upside could be so high.

We forget that half of FDR's New Deal experiments were utter failures. So he kept coming up with new ones, tinkering at the margins or making big U-turns until itseemed to be working.

The danger is that the policymakers will succumb to the public pressure, exacerbated by the media, to pretend that they know the right path. Rather, what they should be doing, is helping us to adjust to the reality that they don't have the foggiest idea what will work, but that they will keep trying, and learning, and applying that learning until they get it right.

Larry Summers had it as reported in the in the Wall Street Journal that fixing the economy was as much an emotional issues as a policy issue.

As a consequence, policymakers have to help us adapt to the new realities: there are no quick fixes; some people will take losses, especially in the short run; and that the government will be running experiments, some of which will fail, but that the people in charge will keep trying until they get it right.

Playing the blame game will not do anyone any good. What is needed is a spirit of experimentation, the thrill of adventure, going out into uncharted waters, knowing that there will be bumps along the way. The policymakers need support, tolerance, and a long view. The best members of the Obama team will be those folks who are willing to take some risks, try out measures that have not been proven in the past, and be open to think of failed experiments as learning opportunities and not marginalization opportunities.

That, President-elect Obama, is the change we need.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Memo to Obama: Beware of Technical Expertise

This is a critical time for Barak Obama. He has no more important task than picking personnel. Leslie Wexner, who founded The Limited, says that one of the hardest lessons he learned was that the central job of a CEO is being the CPO, the Chief Personnel Officer. Obasma will be tempted to choose people who know too much, technical experts who have distinguished themselves with their deep knowledge in, say, economics or foreign affairs. But what the world, and Obama, needs in these unusual times, is not technical expertise, which can be rented or purchased or borrowed anytime in the marketplace, but people of judgment and character who have the capacity to adapt to new, unforeseen circumstances.

Take the Treasury Department, for example. As I looked at the photo in the New York Times of that cast of characters Obama had assembled to discuss the economy, most of whom were pretty clearly Treasury Secretary wannabes, I was struck by how narrow a slice of the world they represented and how narrow a slice of the world's knowledge base or experience as well. "Experts" tend to have a point of view, and if they have a point of view they are invested in that point of view, leading them to misread the situation, ignore counter-data, and stick with their game plan long after it is clear it is not working. What should be most important to Obama about Larry Summers, for example, is not his unquestioned brilliance, but his failed Harvard presidency, when he was unable to stop putting his foot in his mouth and unable to rally the community to his vision for the University. The difference between government and academia, is that in government if the relevant community will not go accept the idea then the idea it is useless, but in academia the idea is always useful fodder for another journal article that few people will ever read.

What Obama needs at Treasury and State is someone with Summers' quality of mind, but with a willingness to experiment and an openness to change, Obama's mantra, that has been demonstrated under challenging and changing circumstances, like Google's Eric Schmidt or US Senator Chuck Hagel.

Oh, and one other quality that is important. Obama needs people who believe in politics, not who disdain it. When I was doing personnel for the Governor of Massachusetts, we recruited and hired a lot of people from the business world. The ones who were obsessed with taking the politics out of government and substituting "good business practices" often blew themselves up with in a year. The ones who were excited by the challenge of mastering politics so that they could have an impact were often significant contributors for a long, long time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama is already delivering losses

My favorite definition of leadership, the one I am really addicted to, is that leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb. One of Obama's most attractive traits is that he has the capacity to stand back and see what is happening while he is in the midst of the action. He appears to be able to reflect in real time, unlike many people in public life who are so caught up in their public personae that they find it difficult to reflect at all, never mind while the action is still going on. So he understands and has acknowledged that he will not, can not, meet the multiple and grandiose expectations that we have placed on him. The process of "disappointing his own people" has already begun. I was on the phone yesterday with a colleague from Dubai, a Palestinian who teaches in and runs executive programs at the Dubai School of Government. He said that the headlines in every newspaper in the Gulf were about the fact that the father of Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's While House chief-of-staff to be, is an Israeli citizen. So much, they were saying, for an evenhanded US Middle East policy. Right or wrong, and my guess is that they are wrong and that my worried Zionist friends have reason for concern, they were expressing their disappointment with Obama based on their expectations, whether or not Obama himself had colluded in their fantasies. This is just a taste of what is to come. There will be disappointments delivered in other staff appointments and Cabinet positions, people and factions who will be denied what they think is their due. And there will be policy disappointments as well, as events, both in the economy and internationally will interrupt the pre-election plans for the post-election period. But in both of these realms, the hyperbolic expectations also provide Obama an opportunity for leadership. Because people all over the world as well as his supporters in the US are so invested in his success, he will have a window to try some experiments in the first six months or year or so that would not be available to most politicians. For him, the challenge will be how to use that precious political capital he has accumulated, but will start to atrophy if he does not expend it. He will need to choose wisely, and never to assume that because he is President and that so many people want him to succeed, that anything really important will be easy. Clinton made both mistakes, choosing unwisely and then not doing the necessary work. Instead of taking a smart risk smartly, he took a stupid risk stupidly when he used his political capital, such as it was given that he was elected with less than 50% of the vote, on gays in the military, an important issue to be sure, but not one that should have tackled first when the nation was facing a need for deep change in health care, education and welfare. By making that his first big initiative, and losing it because he never did the hard work of laying the foundation for it, he blew the opportunity to make real progress on his next initiative, health care. Hope that Obama takes his early risks on something at the top of his priority list and that he does so knowing that no important change will be easy to effect.

Friday, November 7, 2008

When McCain Lost His Soul

Not that anyone cares, but it might be good to remember back in the summer when this campaign for the Presidency was a lot closer than it seemed on November 1. Pundits attribute McCain's sizable defeat to the swooning economy, but I think his downfall started back in late August, right before the convention, when the maverick in McCain gave way to the dark forces of win-at-all-costs. The McCain who showed up on election night with a gracious and moving concession speech, the one who followed Mitt Romney's pandering to the troubled automobile workers in Michigan by telling them the hard truth that those jobs were not going to return, the one who challenged his party's leadership on a whole bunch of important policy issues, the one who called for the surge when the situation in Iraq looked hopeless and public opinion was turning sharply against the war...that John McCain disappeared when he let himself be convinced to choose Sarah Palin rather than the person he wanted to run with, Joseph Lieberman. I have no brief for Lieberman and don't want to get into an argument about Palin, but the choice was much more than who was going to be the nominee for vice president. It was about whether John McCain was willing to risk losing by running his campaign the way he wanted to run it, or he was going to let the hard core Republican operatives try to do FOR him what they did TO him in 2000 in South Carolina. I have been there. I recognize that feeling. Is it better to lose feeling good about the campaign you ran, or try to win with a campaign that makes you feel like you haven't showered in a month? Are you willing to take the chance of doing it "my way" as the old Sinatra theme song goes? McCain made his choice and ended up with the worst of all possible worlds: losing and running a tawdry campaign that will forever tarnish a reputation for independence and honor that he spent a lifetime nurturing. Too bad. But it is a real leadership lesson that goes way beyond politics. That's the real test: can you be true to your own story about yourself, regardless of what others think? Can you act on behalf of purpose rather than expediency when there are real risks in doing so and huge stakes? If he had stood up to those apparachicks like he did his captors in North Vietnam, who knows.....