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

Monday, March 9, 2015

Good Leadership–And Why There Isn’t More Of It

Briony Marshall had no idea she was a bad manager. She was always on budget, ahead of the curve on proposals, and always at seventy-five percent or above on the company’s new productivity scale.  Her staff was respectful, properly dutiful, and motivated.  She was proud of her stewardship.

It was all smoke and mirrors.  She was on budget because she had no patience for any of the broader issues that complicated investment.  It mattered little whether or not the foreign government partner was meeting its contractual agreements – trained staff, infrastructure improvements, or public information – for these were just add-ons, meaningless codicils that Briony had included in the winning proposal to satisfy the US government’s commitment to ‘local buy-in’ and ‘collaboration’. Charter International’s performance was based on how much of any contract budget was dispersed each month– personnel, travel, purchases, etc. – and although foreign government ‘investments’ were recorded and glowingly reported on by Charter each quarter, no one expected much of the venal, corrupt ministries with which the company worked.

Corporate boardroom

Needless to say most of the young, enthusiastic, and idealistic members of Briony’s team did not see things this way.  They had signed up with the expectation of being partners with local government, especially at the community level where collaboration with the ‘beneficiaries’ was not only necessary to assess their needs, but to show solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and powerless. 

African women at well

Even more senior staff – such as the Project Director for the Mwumbo Child Health Project – was unhappy with Charter’s direction and Briony’s slavish attention to the bottom line.  Surely, he thought, there was some give in the contract; some leeway in terms of time and anticipated government investment to allow the newly-reformed bureaucracy to marshal the resources needed to address the outstanding problems of child health and nutrition.

Briony’s answer was an unequivocal ‘No’. As little company time as possible was to be spent on the failed African government counterpart, and there would be no headquarters encouragement of field staff to spend any more.  Regardless what was written in the contract (purple prose about ‘partnership’, ‘participatory engagement’, and ‘bottom-up planning and management’), Charter’s US grantors cared only about dollars out the door, American products purchased, and activities completed in time.  The unwritten rule in all such contracts was ‘Do it yourself’.  Invite the government for periodic collaborative meetings, be nice, disregard what they say, and go about your business as if they did not exist. 


Everyone on both sides knew very well that under the rules of engagement the US contractor was obliged to spend money, and everyone would look the other way while African governments channeled whatever incidental resources that came its way to cousins, cousin-brothers, tribal loyalists, and family friends. The meetings were pure charade.

To say that Briony ran a tight ship was an understatement.  No Roman slave galley was run with harsher discipline.  No one was exempted from her pitiless pursuit of corporate profits.  Those who did not hew to the party line would be demoted, marginalized, and let go.  Briony and the 7th Floor knew quite well that there were legions of idealistic minions anxious to give a helping hand to Africa’s poor and who would fill the empty seats left by those who had been cashiered.

Managing contracts with rigor and slavish attention to detail was only part of Briony’s agenda.  The other was preparing winning proposals. She bid on everything that came down the pike and set a 40 percent success rate as a target, which if achieved would guarantee the highest profits of the company. Lights were on in her department’s offices until midnight until the proposal was finished; and unpaid weekend work was expected.

Despite the plaudits from the 7th Floor – Briony was Charter’s top performer – there was nothing but rancor, resentment, and anger from her staff.  They hated her; but knew that if they quit their young careers would be ruined because of the certain negative and often defamatory letters of ‘recommendation’ that Briony would write. She held her minions in absolute thrall and ran the department like a feudal estate.

As idealistic as these young women were, they were not stupid; and knew that they could sabotage Briony without her figuring out who was responsible. Since everyone from Project Director to the lowest Administrative Assistant despised working for Briony, the collusion of the entire staff was assured. One of the smartest and most able program managers in the department and the one with the least to lose because of her connections in the State Department, took the lead.  Without going into detail about the various shenanigans she concocted to throw the budget, personnel time sheets, local expenditures, and workflow simulations into complete disarray, it was like pouring molasses into a gas tank. The motor was finished.

Of course the program manager did not act precipitously.  She hid her tracks and those of everyone else who up and down the line made minor ‘adjustments’ to company spreadsheets.  It was so ingenious – especially because of the able and agile hand of the department IT person who hated Briony more than anyone else.  He jiggered the software programs so that all indicators for lowered performance pointed away from the staff and up to Briony and her tight inner circle.  His deviousness was so ingenious and so deceptive, that Briony had no idea what was coming; and when she found out, it was too late  She was called on the 7th Floor carpet and never recovered.

This could never have happened in most company departments, for it is rare to find such unanimity about anything; but the rage Briony’s staff was so universal that it made sabotage easy.

It was a mystery to all of us how Briony could be so smart but so myopic.  She understood the venality of American foreign assistance, correctly labeled the bureaucrats who prepared and administered Charter’s contracts as middle-brow civil servants, had worked long enough in Africa to know that the whole lot of government workers were corrupt, self-serving petty thieves; and best of all knew Charter’s CEO and his approach to international development – “Take ‘em for all they’ve got”.

Briony, however, had absolutely no leadership abilities.  She could have done as well from a platform of respect, consideration, and compromise, but ignored the opportunity.  Any good leader knows that staff will work twice as hard if their abilities, effort, and willingness are recognized.  A good leader sets clear objectives and expectations, and helps everyone to meet them.

She deserved the ignominious fate of being left on the curb by senior management and having no idea why.  The staff’s humiliation of her was complete and final.

The story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance is taught at Harvard Business School as an example of intelligent leadership.  The Endurance, on a voyage of exploration of the Antarctic got trapped in ice, was crushed, and captain and crew were forced to spend the winter under unimaginable conditions of cold, wind, and scarcity.  Having settled the majority of his crew in a sheltered location, he sailed in a small boat not much bigger than a dinghy over 1000 miles of dark, wintry seas to contact a manned outpost on Georgia Island. Because of wind and tides, Shackleton landed on a coast far from the outpost so he and his small crew had to climb over a 7000 ft. mountain to reach help.


He found help, sailed back to his men and found them alive and reasonably healthy.  No one of the crew on the Endurance was lost.  He understood when to march and when to halt; who to take with him on the dinghy and who to leave behind.  He was rational and logical in his practical decisions, and canny in his understanding of his men.

Briony Marshall had the wherewithal to be a good manager and leader.  She had the brains, the discipline, and the logic to meet all contractual obligations and to earn the support if not affection from her staff.  She was too full of herself to lead.  She was too dismissive and critical of her government, all African governments, and the naïve idealism of her young employees.  A little give would have won the day.

It is perhaps very unfair to use Ernest Shackleton as a model for anyone, let alone hapless Briony Marshall.  Few people have enough intelligence to understand people and things.

There are far more incompetent managers and feckless leaders in the world than admirable ones.  Management and leadership can certainly be honed by training and counseling; but only up to a point after which the Briony Marshalls of the world have to simply pay attention, listen, and compute the illogic of human nature into their equations.

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