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March 28, 2003

A quote from last November
Posted by Teresa at 11:52 AM *

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.

Comments on A quote from last November:
#1 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 05:07 PM:

This post says it's from April 20, 2003. Got any tips on the Final Four?

I think of the old Brecht quote: If the explanations Bush gets from the people are unsatisfactory, he should dissolve them and choose a new people.

#2 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 05:11 PM:

I mentioned in one of my first blog posts the book What Would Machiavelli Do?. In light of your post, you might want to read the book. It's, shall we say, illuminating.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 05:24 PM:

Better now, Arthur?

Chris, here's a bit from Chapter XXIII of The Prince, "How Flatterers Should Be Avoided":

And if there are some who think that a prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisers that he has around him, beyond doubt they are deceived, because this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his affairs entirely to one person who happens to be a very prudent man. In this case indeed he may be well governed, but it would not be for long, because such a governor would in a short time take away his state from him.

But if a prince who is not experienced should take counsel from more than one he will never get united counsels, nor will he know how to unite them. Each of the counsellors will think of his own interests, and the prince will not know how to control them or to see through them.

#4 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 06:23 PM:

Speaking of quotes to think about, I did some chain browsing after reading your comments, and came across I story I remember from last summer -- the war games where a retired Marine general, essentially playing Saddam, defeated the American force before it ever got ashore. But the "referees" refloated the navy to let the exercise (which was "free play" as it was to validate concepts, not for training) and continued to overrule General Paul Van Riper's (what a name . . .) tactics when they became too unconventional. From the Guardian ariticle and interview:

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the war game called time out.

"A phrase I heard over and over was: 'That would never have happened,'" Van Riper recalls. "And I said: nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre... but nobody seemed interested."

In the end, it was ruled that the Blue forces had had the $250m equivalent of their fingers crossed and were not really dead, while the ships were similarly raised from watery graves.

Another good extended quote:

John Pike, the head of GlobalSecurity.org, a military thinktank in Washington, believes the splits over transformation and the whole Van Riper affair reflect fundamental differences of opinion on how to pursue the war on Iraq.

"One way is to march straight to Baghdad, blowing up everything in your way and then by shock and awe you cause the regime to collapse," Pike says. "That is what Rumsfeld is complaining about when he talks about unimaginative plodding. The alternative is to bypass the Iraqi forces and deliver a decisive blow."

Van Riper denies being opposed to new military thinking. He just thinks it should be written in plain English and put to the test. "My main concern was that we'd see future forces trying to use these things when they've never been properly grounded in an experiment," he says.

The name Van Riper draws either scowls or rolling eyes at the Pentagon these days, but there are anecdotal signs that he has the quiet support of the uniformed military, who, after all, will be the first to discover whether the Iraq invasion plans work in real life.

This is something to think about, in the wake of comments like Gen. Wallace's yesterday. I don't know if this shows that the political or the military planners were more self decieving. Hard to tell so far.

#5 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 06:41 PM:

The word is a lot closer to "moron".

If you make it really, painfully, obviously clear that what you are doing is coming to kill them all -- and that is the only possible interpretation of 'regieme change' to anyone who is in the Ba'thist party; it's not enough to kill Saddam, they're all headed for the mass grave, too -- they will fight.

(This is most of why forcible regieme change is a short term stupid policy, but never mind.)

If they fight, their objectives are twofold; kill as many of you as they possibly can, and induce you to do as much destruction as they possibly can, to destroy whatever local legitimacy you might have with the opponents of the current regieme and to cause you as much trouble governing the place as possible.

How anyone could possibly think that a Stalinist-style state would fold in the face of an external threat is beyond me; they equated the Kuwait adventure with a direct invasion of the homeland, and it *still* doesn't make a lot of sense, because the Party *must* fight; they can win, or they can die, no third option, and they know that even if Rumsfield doesn't.

#6 ::: Ter ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 06:58 PM:

Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.

Uh....because you're not Emperor-for-Life?

#7 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 07:35 PM:

But the "referees" refloated the navy to let the exercise (which was "free play" as it was to validate concepts, not for training)

Which isn't nearly as bad as some people make it. The fleet sinking (and it was pretty much the heart of the fleet, Van Riper nailed two CVNs and two LHAs -- which also bagged two Carrier Air Wings, a Marine Air Wing, and two Marine Expeditionary Units in one battle. Total forces lost? About 17,000 servicemen, 250 aircraft, and of course, the four major ships (and a few escorts, as well)) was pretty much a win for Red. The umpires basically said "okay, Red won that one", then refloated the fleet and started from that point.

The point was to test tactics -- a flaw had been exposed, but to stop the whole exercise there would have left a bunch of work undone. Restarting it didn't really change anything afterwards (the game was still in the "get forces into place" phase.)

and continued to overrule General Paul Van Riper's (what a name . . .) tactics when they became too unconventional.

Which is the true mistake here. The Centcom officers playing Blue were furious that Van Riper still had comm with his troops after they'd slagged his phones and jammed his radios -- and were even more furious when they found out he was using adjutants on motorcycles as messengers.

They should have been embarrased -- and the lesson should have struck home -- UHF and fiber optics are nice, but not required, to keep command-and-control of your forces. The high-tech US forces keep forgetting this -- and it keeps coming back to haunt them.

#8 ::: SImon ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 08:18 PM:

Teresa, your post is the most solid and serious evidence yet that Bush really is in the presidency over his head, and isn't the idiot savant that some of his fans claim he is, let alone the master manager that others claim.

Somewhere I read a statement to the effect that Bush knows he isn't too savvy, but he makes up for this by knowing how to choose savvy advisors. It seems to me that the Macchiavelli quote you provide is a response to that.

All you war game experts, I'm curious: what actually physically happens when ships are sunk in a war game? Do the planes drop dye bombs, or what?

#9 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 08:20 PM:

Teresa, I think someone should circulate this mini-essay of yours throughout the State Department (and maybe to Republican staffers on Capitol Hill).

There's a small, but observable, phenomenon going on, right now, of rational Republican bureaucrats feeling increasingly nervous about working for the Cowboy Chief. (Witness Mary Wright's recent resignation.)

I think increased distribution of your analysis might encourage intelligent fence-sitters to admit what they already suspect (and are struggling with): that Bush is a liability to the wellbeing of the United States who really needs to be replaced.

#10 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 08:53 PM:

Quite so, Eric. The line I really like concerning the "fleet" was:

A phrase I heard over and over was: 'That would never have happened,'" Van Riper recalls. "And I said: nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre... but nobody seemed interested."

I agree that "rebooting" the simulation was probably the right thing to do. But I think we are now seeing (to mangle a fine phrase) chickenhawks coming home to roost. Now that the Iraqi forces seem neither shocked or in awe of us, reports are surfacing that decision makers had been warned of that. Some war supporters are responding with "eh, just some CYA on the part of bureaucrats" or "Monday morning quarterbacking".

The truth is that there was a running conflict over how this war was to be fought for more than a year, and the military professionals lost. This was not some secret conflict off in some secure conference room or command post -- this has been publicly discussed the entire time -- but largely ignored by the general press. Rumsfled, Wolfowitz, & Co. thought that since they did not get burned in Afghanistan, they knew better about Iraq. They cut the forces alloted by half, then publicly called the coming attack a "cakewalk". Now they want to act as if they had never said anything of the sort. The problem for them is that there are journalists (real ones!) like Rick Atkinson in Iraq with the skill and background to understand what is going on around them, ask good questions, and understand the significance of what they hear. And their earlier comments are often on the record somewhere.

What astonishes me about some of the comments coming out is that they were made at all in the presence of a journalist, even an embedded one. If you are a Lt. General and a Corps commander, you don't make the kind of comments William Wallace made without a purpose. In my opinion, Wallace, the senior commander on the scene, was sending a message via the WaPost, a message that he may have had little faith would be listened to any other way.

I did not want this to start, but now that we have tens of thousands of soldiers hundreds of miles inside Iraq without secure supply lines or an easy withdrawal route they only safe way home may well be through Baghdad. The commanders that have been quoted (and there appears to be a crackdown on the embeds right now) sound like they plan to fight the enemy in front of them, and not the plan they marched in with. They sound tough and professional and I pray daily, both for them and for the innocents surrounding them. And I pray that those who put them both in peril will be held accountable for it.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 08:54 PM:

A couple of things.

First, Miss Teresa, have you considered submitting this essay as an Op-Ed piece somewhere? The web is all very nice, but hard-copy is the way to go for distribution and respectability.

Second, as to war games.

There are all kinds of war games. There are some that are played out in rooms with little models. When a ship is sunk it is removed. There are some that are played out in command posts, by radio or telephone or teletype. The various commanders give their orders, the other commanders are told by referees what they see or what just happened, then they give orders, and the refs relay those effects to the other side. Dice rolling happens out of sight of the players. No real troops or ships move around.

Then there are the war games where you're really moving stuff around. You have the refs going with the units. You have some ships being enemy ships. You have missles being "constructively" fired. The refs tell you what happened. When a ship is sunk, it just hangs around until it becomes some new ship. A destroyer playing an aircraft carrier is sunk, then it is reborn as a prepositioned supply ship, and when that's constructively sunk, it becomes a constructive minesweeper.

At the level I think these games were played, it would have most resembled a real-time double-blind game of Dungeons and Dragons.

#12 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 09:02 PM:

Simon, in this sort of exercise (Millennium Challenge) it is a combination of computers and live action. Real ships, planes and troops carry out key portions of the exercise, with all the "results" tracked on some wicked computer systems. (The military has always had the best video games.) This includes the MILES equipment that uses IR lasers and sensors to simulate weapons effects from M-16's to 2000 pound bombs. The control group (the referees) let any individual unit or craft know of any change in their status, if it is not obvious from the simulation itself. And the computers can be used to drive the dislplays that commanders work from. A lot of the ships and planes are "notional" -- they exist only in the exercise computers. Some exercises (command post exercises or CPX's) use no real troops at all, but simulate the traffic from field units for the purpose of training and evaluating command personnel and systems.

#13 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 09:28 PM:

(Risking wrath of Ms. Nielsen Hayden)...


I read a number of books about the Imperial Japanese Navy in WWII. War games were run there exactly as this one was: Whenever Blue force succeeded in sinking ships, the referees overruled and ordered the ships resurrected, on the grounds that "the Americans couldn't actually do that", or "That couldn't happen". After the IJN defeat at Midway, comments were heard among senior Admirals (I believe Yammamoto among them) to the effect that "such games amount to exercises in masturbation". After that, few such games were conducted as the IJN was no longer in a position to take the offensive.

Surely, someone in the Pentagon must know this quote, and the story it refers to. Yet we appear to have been willing to make the same mistake again. Not encouraging.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 10:27 PM:

Chuck, all will be forgiven if only you'll tell me why you thought I might be upset by that. And btw, isn't there a similar set of stories about wargames involving the new generation of subs vs. old WWII-vintage diesel subs?

#15 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 11:47 PM:

Just possibly you mean the old snorkel/diesel/electric technology rather than the old boats themselves?

There has been renewed interest in smaller boats with smaller crews which may give up range (including time on patrol) for quieter inshore operations. May be a parallel to Jefferson's notion of near shore defence rather than a deep water navy for the early Republic. See e.g. the U.S. promise of (German design and likely built) pigboats to Taiwan. As in the Booth-Tarkington Plans it may be difficult to operate in the littoral when that means in the radius of operation of an electric (small E small B) boat. Don't want your carriers to go steaming over a boat lieing quiet. A boat like the Kursk with sea skimmers may not be the cheapest carrier killer inshore or to close a strait to traffic.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2003, 11:52 PM:

Say on, Clark; but wasn't Booth Tarkington a 20th C. novelist?

#17 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 12:24 AM:

He meant the Bruce-Partington Plan; just Googled for it.

#18 ::: Clark E. Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 12:38 AM:

Wish I could claim rhyming slang.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 05:06 AM:

May all our mistakes be that interesting.

#20 ::: Graham Sleight ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 05:42 AM:

Teresa, that crashing sound you'll have heard across the Atlantic was me falling off my chair at the sheer appositeness of this analogy. Not so long ago, the company I worked for got taken over and just such a person was brought in. He was constantly encouraging me to Think Outside The Box - you know, spend a3X on a bunch of marketing exercises which might only yield 50% of X in turnover, approach the editors of a long-standing series run extremely well by our better-resourced competitor and offer them a lump sum we couldn't afford to entice them away, use this great New York lawyer he knew to draft a deal between two UK companies, etc etc. The problem is, when you keep arguing against such ideas on grounds of boring practicalities, such people get fed up really quickly, and believe you're trying to block them because you're not sufficiently imaginative. Boring processes - especially slow processes they don't control like, oh, arms inspection - are anathema. Getting lots of people in to achieve consensus is anathema. Going off and doing deals with the two or three people in the world who still like you is much more fun. The UN is a body pretty much designed to piss off this kind of manager, which is why (unlike Blair) I don't hold out much hope for some kind of US reconciliation to it in six months' time.

#21 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 08:31 AM:

Chuck -- I'd heard the story of the Japanese ]cheating[ at their own strategic simulations (i.e., developing plans against an enemy rather than just getting their own forces to practice), but the quote is new and interesting.

How many other ways is the U.S. starting to look like imperial Japan? Let's see; unelected leadership, expanding the sphere of influence through the military, belief that someone far off is a threat (how long would it have taken for a Pacific conflict to develop if they'd continued down their own side instead of bombing Pearl Harbor?). Was their military at least vaguely in charge, or did they also have a bunch of draft dodgers with delusions of grandeur at the top?

There's no comparison at the action level; I do not expect we'll see something on the level of the Rape of Nanjing. (I don't know about My Lai; will the "coalition" be able to take Baghdad before half the countryside is roused against them, and if not what will happen?Somewhere in the links there was an observation that these days have been the easy part even without thinking about taking Baghdad itself -- the Tigris/Euphrates valley isn't exactly jungle but it's a lot harder to move or see in than the desert.) But the control level is looking increasingly ugly.

#22 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 08:51 AM:

Speaking of quotes, we're starting to get some choice ones from this war:

AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar (Reuters) - U.S. Central Command denied on Saturday that there had been any pause in military operations to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"I think that with respect to a pause, there is no pause on the battlefield. Just because you see a particular formation pause on the battlefield it does not mean there is a pause," Major General Victor Renuart told a news conference.

Earlier, U.S. military sources said commanders had ordered a pause of four to six days in their northward push toward Baghdad because of supply shortages and stiff Iraqi resistance.

While I think I know what General Renuart was getting at, still . . . You know it took years in Vietnam to get to "we had to destroy the village in order to save it." For a war that's less than two weeks old I think this is quite promising, in a rather depressing sort of way.

#23 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 02:14 PM:

I'm just baffled that any of this comes as a surprise to people.

The performance of the Iraqi army in 1991 was crap. But here's the kicker: they were a conscript force invading another country. This time round they're defending the homeland. First, there are political types behind them with guns who will shoot deserters (or their families). And second, nobody likes the idea of some bastard invading their country. Even if you don't like your government, the idea of standing aside while a foreign superpower bombs your capital and then holds show trials will tend to stick in the throat.

(Seriously. Imagine the Star Trek Federation turned up tomorrow and announced they were going to occupy DC and enforce regime change on the Bush family. Would you say "gee, that's alright" and let them go ahead? Or would your response be "he may be a bastard but he's our bastard to deal with, and you invade my country over my dead body"?)

Then there's the whole logistical nightmare, security nightmare, the fact that the Iraqi population is 70% urban, and all the rest of it.

All we need to complete the pretty picture is North Korea getting frisky with the south, China getting tetchy over Taiwan, India and Pakistan dick-sizing with nuclear fireworks, and, say, a trade war with Europe?

(Which of the horses of the apocalypse riders haven't bolted from the stable yet?)

#24 ::: Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 03:17 PM:

Teresa, I was risking that I was persona non grata here. I respect you greatly, and if you said go away I would.

"Was their military at least vaguely in charge, or did they also have a bunch of draft dodgers with delusions of grandeur at the top?
"

To answer this question, the Japanese army ran the country, by a curious method. Under the Meiji Constitution, no government could be formed without a Defense Minister, who was required be an Army General on active duty. Anytime the nominally civilian government did something the Army didn't like, they just moved the Defense Minister from the ranks of the active to the inactive, thereby bringing down the government.

The Navy had no such authority, and operated more or less autonomously, mostly ignoring the government and showing veiled and sometimes active contempt for the Army. They were by far the Emperor's favorite, and knew no one would mess with their funding under any circumstances.

To answer another question, Pearl Harbor was wished on the Navy by the Army acting indirectly with the tacit consent of the Privy Councillor, who nominally spoke for the Emperor. The reasoning was that in order for Japan to take their rightful place at the head of nations, they needed natural resources. These were available in what was euphemistically referred to as the "Southern Resource Area" (Indonesia, Viet Nam, etc.) The only substantive force that could interfere with their seizure (so they reasoned) was the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. So they determined to take it out.

Lots more interesting stuff about all this, but most of it has already been written by better writers than me. See "At Dawn We Slept", by Gordon Prange.

#25 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 06:33 PM:

For Japanese naval war games the best primary source I know of is Midway: the Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy's Story - by Fuchida, Okumiya, currently reissued with material by Buell, Kawakami, Pineau and Spruance.

Just possibly for a view of Yamamoto it is like asking Pickett for his opinion of Lee.

Notice too that a visiting Fuchida IIRC when Tibetts had a wing in Florida assured Tibetts that Tibetts did the right thing when Tibetts had just a B29.

On the submarines, generally, and any real knowledge I have is way out of date - nuclear submarines were top dollar with everything soundproofed, so it was hard to hear from a distance but made a full spectrum of noise when you got close - I suppose reactor cooling was usually running :-). Pigboats would have a few things that were aging or not good enough to begin with and so made a louder noise but not full spectrum. Maybe an analogy to a deer drive where the standers are in tree stands - bows and arrows may work as well and better than bean field rifles - of course for submarines the pigboat can hit as hard as a nuke.

Just possibly in the famous cross table of bright/not bright with energetic/not energetic we have not bright and energetic.

#26 ::: pi ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 07:41 PM:

Great piece. Myth of Republican competence indeed. Musing about implications -- mostly how this could help surviving Americans see how to kneecap the thugs -- and I run across this on the redhot TPM, relaying Reuters' report on Hersh's latest (Go Josh!). It seems hubris still invites Fate's wrath:

"Hersh, however, quoted the former intelligence official as saying the war was now a stalemate"

(full text at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48265-2003Mar29.html)

This reads to my sad eyes as terrible news for our people in the mud. And hardly better for the Iraqi people. But maybe through the muck'n'mire a way to get *our* country back?

#27 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 07:52 PM:

Brilliant piece, Teresa.

What the current war most has been reminding of is a technology company where the marketing department is in charge, refusing to listen to anything the engineering department says, and trying to simultaneously dictate cost, quality, and schedule.

I thought that was as far as the analogy to my day job went, but you've just extended it. That isn't exactly reassuring, but at least it helps resolve some of my lingering deja vu.

Charlie — If the Federation showed up, I’d fight, but I’d happily turn coat for the Culture. :)

#28 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 09:03 PM:

Well, we do have a MBA as CEO of this country ...

#29 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2003, 09:40 PM:

I don't know, but I have the feeling that certain "senior administration officials" operate the same way--say, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft--so there may be multiple levels of the same soet of thing.

#30 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2003, 01:42 AM:

Graham, I didn't know who'd fall off their chair, but I had faith that if I made my description clear enough, someone out there would crash to the floor when the shock of recognition hit them. As further confirmation, what you're describing is very much the same kind of person I had in mind, right down to their disinclination to slog along getting the work done, and their preference for going off for entertaining but ill-starred negotiations.

It's much easier to act like a bold, decisive, visionary executive when you're unhampered by considerations like how all this stuff's going to get done, who's going to do it, and what the chances are that you're going to take a loss on it.

Chuck, you're behaving pleasantly and saying interesting things. How could you not be welcome?

Charlie, it doesn't come as a surprise to me that people who won't fight to defend the illegal annexation of the country next door will fight like tigers to defend their homeland. What does surprise me--mightily--is that the administration didn't think of it.

Thanks, David. Sorry to hear about your employers.

I work for a company where the Marketing Dept. has a lot of say, but they aren't so stupid as to ignore what the other departments tell them. It makes all the difference in the world.

#31 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2003, 10:35 AM:

No worries, Teresa. If I was in love with my job, I'd have no incentive to write, would I? :)

#32 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2003, 09:51 PM:

"You?re there for me. I?m not there for you."

Exactly. The press often talks about Bush's 'loyalty', but it's really only an expectation of subservience. He himself isn't loyal in the least; if he were, he wouldn't have gone AWOL during his time in the Air Guard. If he's not loyal enough to live up to that commitment, during wartime, then he's probably not someone you'd want to leave unmonitored around your spare change.

I get a really unpleasant feeling when I see Bush talking about the war. Particularly when he does that leaning-on-the-podium thing, where he could just as easily be bragging about his car's engine, or his drinking ability, or the latest slut he banged.

#33 ::: Chris W ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2003, 11:53 PM:

That's also classic Harvard Business School (Bush's alma mater) management philosophy from Bush's generation. As a manager you don't need to know the specifics of whatever it is you're making decisions, it's the job of your underlings to know that stuff and to give it to you in nice easy sound-bytes so you can make the important decisions. And of course your underlings are all ambitious so they're just going to give you the slant that favors them, so you need to keep them constantly off-guard. It's wrongheaded and it's harmful, but it's how a generation of America's best and brightest in the business world were taught.

#34 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2003, 02:38 PM:

Chris, the thing that struck me about that theory, when I first heard it, is that it means the person who knows least about the business is the one who makes the most money and has the greatest decision-making power; and that the people who know the most about the business they work in, but who haven't had the magic MBA wizardry imparted to them, are permanently ineligible for promotion to the top spot.

That makes it an attractive prospect: Get the magic MBA and do an end-run around what would otherwise be years of dues-paying work in your industry of choice. If you had an MBA, or were an institution that granted them, you'd have considerable motivation to perpetuate a system that gives you so much privilege and prestige.

(It's right up there with the management theories that say the success or failure of business organizations is entirely dependent on the work of a few dizzyingly talented key executives, and therefore it only makes sense to pay them huge salaries so they'll stay around instead of exercising their stellar genius elsewhere.

In response to this, I observe that the one thing you never hear anyone say is "I'm not worth the salary they pay me.")

My second reaction to that theory was longer in coming. I'm a fan of real-world testing. I've worked at a lot of different offices, sometimes under execs who didn't think they had to know their own business, and sometimes under execs who knew it down to the fine details. (Notable in the latter class: Tom Doherty.)

As I understand it, the theory is that not concerning yourself with the ground-level details means you won't get bogged down in them and miss the big picture. This doesn't actually work. Some people have a knack for summarizing and categorizing systems and structures, and seeing how they all fit together, and for getting work done within that system. Others don't.

Someone who doesn't have a knack for system & structure & flow can be successful in his field, right up to the point where he's promoted into a job that requires a larger understanding. Then he flounders. But it's not his attention to detail that's creating the problem; it's his inability to see anything else. He'd be floundering just as badly if he weren't paying attention to detail. He does have this one virtue, though: if you move him back to where his skills are applicable, he goes back to being a valuable employee.

What's far commoner is to see people who might or might not have a sense of system--under the circumstances, who can tell?--who are bogged down and floundering in the details because they don't know what to make of them.

Occasionally this gets you scenarios like the corporate beancounter who asked a newly-acquired publishing house why they don't ignore all those other unprofitable books and just publish the bestsellers, or the Commodore vice president who told the Amiga division guys about his great new idea: why not get rid of that troublesome graphical interface and replace it with text on the screen? "We could call it Wordbench!", he reportedly said.

But usually the results are just dreary. If you don't know what things mean, you can't tell which ones can be ignored, and you can't figure out your tradeoffs. This gets you ramifying paperwork systems and overlong, indecisive meetings. If you don't have a live intelligence at the center of things, you lose organizational proprioception, which leads to interdepartmental warfare, because people who don't know the overall picture will still know what their departments need.

In sum, genuine top-level ability is a combination of that individual's drive to succeed, plus years of work and experience, plus a certain amount of an uncommon innate talent--just like it is in every other field of human endeavor. Funny thing, that.

#35 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 05:36 PM:

Teresa wrote,

"Someone who doesn't have a knack for system & structure & flow can be successful in his field, right up to the point where he's promoted into a job that requires a larger understanding. Then he flounders. But it's not his attention to detail that's creating the problem; it's his inability to see anything else. He'd be floundering just as badly if he weren't paying attention to detail. He does have this one virtue, though: if you move him back to where his skills are applicable, he goes back to being a valuable employee."

This is a restatement of a portion of the Peter Principle. (Which is to say, famous authority suggests you're on to something.)

"... the Commodore vice president who told the Amiga division guys about his great new idea: why not get rid of that troublesome graphical interface and replace it with text on the screen?"

Is this supposed to be a bad example? Not to me. I hate the graphical interface! I'd buy that software in a flash, if only someone would make it! (And no, I don't want ornate Unix-style command lines. I want a text-based interface, the kind that software was moving towards in the mid-80s before the Mac-style graphical interface washed over everything, and of which Genie was the last survivor.)

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