The quote is from a writeup of a CBS News/60 Minutes interview, Bob Woodward talking to Mike Wallace about his own recent interviews with George W. Bush.
Woodward says [Bush] told him that when he chairs a meeting he often tries to be provocative. When Woodward asked him if he tells his staff that he is purposely being provocative, Mr. Bush answered: “Of course not. I am the commander, see?” Bush: “I do not need to explain why I say things. — That’s the interesting thing about being the President. — Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”O, my heart sank when I read that quote. I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, ever since.
I recognize that behavior. Lord help me, I’ve seen it done. It’s one of the tactics you can use if you’re in an executive-level job that’s beyond your abilities, you have to have meetings with underlings who know more than you do, and your only concern is to save face while making sure they’re giving you what you want.
The discussion that passes at a normal meeting is subject to normal criticism and analysis. You don’t want that. If instead you run the meeting in a deliberately provocative fashion, it skews the discourse out of shape, generates a lot of noise and confusion, and throws everyone off balance. This camouflages the fact that you don’t know which end of the stick is sharp. It also teaches people that they’re only safe if you’re happy.
Having to ask questions is likewise unacceptable. Being provocative is a way to get your underlings to automatically give you a recap of what the issues are, their relative importance, how the whole picture fits together, and where that underling comes into it. How so? Because of the skew in the discourse. Someone giving an answer he’s already thought about will generally just give the answer. But if you knock him off balance, make him think on his feet and talk while he’s doing his thinking, he’s more likely to narrate the whole mental process leading up to the answer. Even if you don’t get the whole process out of him, he’ll still be giving you half-formed answers, and those will have a lot of context still sticking to them. Either way, you’ll pick up a lot of framing information, and can then act like you knew that stuff all along. You’re unlikely to get called on it by someone who’s still trying to regain his balance.
If in the course of your provocation du jour you make some egregious blunder, you can claim you were just trying to think outside the box. After all, the more basic and obvious the thing is that you just demonstrated you don’t know, the greater the need to periodically examine its underlying assumptions—right? And if you also take the attitude that you owe no one any explanations, you’re pretty much covered on all fronts.
Pulling a trick like that once might be funny if Harry Flashman were doing it; but then, he’s fictional. In the real world it’s lousy management technique and irresponsible command behavior. Proper meetings are an exchange of information that enable the organization to make better decisions. What you’ve got instead is a recipe for meetings where the overall organization comes out knowing less than it did going in.
Your more earnest and straightforward underlings are still going to be trying to fit all that random noise you’re generating into some larger overall picture. It’ll be tough going. The less honest ones will just be trying to keep you happy while pushing their own agendas—and they’ll be at an advantage. It’s tough to come up with truthful, responsible answers under those conditions, because there are thousands of bits of real-world circumstantiality one has to account for. Agenda-pushers just need to know which direction to push, and they’ve got that going in. There’ll be no one to save you from folly.
One more observation. Consider Bush’s statement: Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation. That is not and cannot be the voice of a public servant. What you’re hearing there is a long-accustomed and automatic assumption of privilege: You’re there for me. I’m not there for you.