"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why Do We Always Choose The Wrong Leaders?

Most of us vote for leaders based on how they say they will deal with existing problems. In the Presidential election of 2008, Obama was elected for many reasons, but none of which was his ability to deal with a global financial meltdown.  George W. Bush was elected in 2000 to move the country to a more conservative position and to redress the excesses of the liberal Clinton years – not to fight two wars and a radical and Muslim insurgency.

Maybe we are voting the wrong way.  Instead of judging politicians on how they would resolve issues of health care, education, or now international terrorism, perhaps we should choose our leaders on intelligence, intellect, and above all, adaptability.  Since there is no way to predict future events – even though pundits make millions convincing us that they can; and CIA, DOD, State Department, and White House strategists spend entire days moving toy battleships, tanks and drones to anticipated positions – we might be better served by electing a President who we can count on to use and keep his head when the going gets tough.

The British Civil Service and its South Asian clone the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) provide a useful model for this approach.  Civil servants – i.e. the vast array of non-elected senior managers of government departments – are considered fungible and transferable. They have been trained in administration and management and are able to develop, oversee, manage, and evaluate the programs initiated by politicians.  A top IAS manager currently working in the Department of Agriculture may easily be shifted to Interior, if the Cabinet of Ministers feels that the agency needs shoring up.  Technical skills are irrelevant, the argument goes, for they can be contracted.  Solid management, financial, budgeting, accounting, and evaluation skills, however, are the key to economic and social development and not for sale.

Americans often deride this system and dismiss IAS officers as bureaucrats, the code word for do-nothing, paper-pushing place-holders. There is good reason for this view because the US government has become a bloated, self-serving, colony of paramecia, spreading gooey ooze into every corner of Washington. Although the British government is no stranger to bureaucratic slime, it has acknowledged the value of senior civil servants and their ability to keep government working.

The problem, of course, is that the American public is used to character and charisma and to red-meat politics. The most electable politicians know how to boil the blood of their supporters, hurling lightning bolts of family, patriotism, and life.  They know that ideas don’t count as much as passions; that most Americans wouldn’t recognize intelligence if they saw it; and that the key to electoral success is blood-letting and ‘strength’.  It is unthinkable that a candidate for high office would run on his record of running a State agricultural program, or success at reforming its budgetary reporting.

By any account Larry Summers should have been chosen as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He is simply ‘one of the smartest people on the planet’, and regardless of his getting caught in the buzz-saw of academic and feminist politics at Harvard, his reported arrogance, and overweening self-confidence, I would rather have a brain in the chair rather than a looker..  Summers, however, would never be the ideal Adaptable Man, and at the helm of the United States his personality might get us into hot water.  The IAS bureaucrat, on the other hand, is selected not only for his intelligence and abilities, but for his unflappability.  IAS officers survive in the hurly-burly of Indian electoral politics because of their independence and ability to sail the roiled and turbulent waters of Delhi.  Our ideal Adaptable Man would be like an IAS officer with a dash of √©lan and a strong jaw.

Still, it is hard to imagine an electoral campaign based only on intelligence, sangfroid, and management. “Where do you stand on the issues?” is the campaign question; and if Adaptable Man said that today’s issues didn’t matter, voters would scratch their heads and leave him for the revival-tent, Bible-thumping, revelations of his opponent.

Perhaps the IAS model may not be the best one for America after all, but that of the Navy Seal.  In an article for BBC News Online (9.22.13) Sydney Finkelstein observes:

Great leaders must be adaptable. Consider the military’s special forces, those highly trained personnel assigned to the most dangerous and unconventional missions. These elite units, which date back to Roman times, select and train warriors for strength, maturity, motivation, and intelligence. Candidates who make it through to the end are incredibly capable, yet there is one characteristic that is make-or-break in the final analysis: the ability to adapt and adjust and think fresh, in real-time.

Of course this military model is loaded with flaws.  Look at General Petraeus, a brilliant, disciplined strategic thinker and battlefield genius. Smart as he was, he never understood the Internet and didn’t have the sense to keep his pants on. Eisenhower was a great military leader and a good President who understood that the American public simply needed a rest after the ravages of war, and a Chief Executive who played golf all the time was all right with them. We were lucky, however. The entire world was beaten by America, and even the most pessimistic doomsday prophets kept quiet. But if we all had been wrong, and a giant meteor came crashing down on Los Angeles with a big chunk spun off at the Kremlin, what would Ike have done?

Worst of all, even the dumbest boob in the bayous has some opinion on Iraq, abortion, and gays; but still can’t tell an intelligent, insightful, competent, and adaptable leader from an armadillo. What good are these qualifications if most people cannot even recognize those who have them?

Some of America’s greatest leaders, however, were stubborn, inflexible, and immovable.  Ronald Reagan operated on three cylinders – patriotism, small government, and private enterprise – and they were enough to revolutionize the world. No American after Reagan – except a few ‘progressives’ in academia – can ever look at government without at least a measure of circumspection; and no one can deny that his unrelenting pressure on the Soviet Union contributed to its downfall.  Reagan had vision, principle, and conviction.  Few people cared how smart he was or how flexible.

The idea of valuing adaptability is a good one; but unfortunately it is a non-starter. It is good to remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

He was right, of course, and spot on when it came to a leader’s dilemma; but most people thought he was nuts and had no idea whatsoever what he was saying.

So much for Adaptable Man.

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