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Michael Useem

Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Decisions Without Reflection

When we think about leaders, we tend at times to classify them holistically as effective or ineffective, successful or failed.

It is a useful portrayal for some leaders. On the affirmative side, what Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and George C. Marshall each achieved is aptly captured by the simple and unambiguous characterization of "great leadership." On the negative side, others come to mind for whom "terrible leadership" would be entirely fitting

But for most who carry responsibilities for the others, a more nuanced appraisal of their leadership is in order - neither perfect nor perfectly flawed - and such an assessment is usefully applied to the presidency of George W. Bush.

In the last days of President Bush's administration, public opinion and political commentators turned against his leadership, deeming it fatally flawed. Yet, as an act of mental discipline, it is useful to consider his leadership strengths, not just the shortcomings.

The most significant strength, in my view, is the president's unvarying capacity to make decisions and not to fret about them. This ability is well revealed in Bob Woodward's accounts of the president's decisions on launching the war in Afghanistan.

Though sometimes mocked, Bush's declaration that he was the chief "decider" well captured a willingness to face and make the difficult and fateful decisions that repeatedly confronted him in the Oval Office.

Not second-guessing a momentous decision, however, is not the same as not reflecting on its outcome. The U.S. armed forces and federal firefighters have long employed the device of an "after action review" to learn from past mistakes. The "AAR" is a disciplined and oft-used method for asking what worked, what did not work, and how future decisions could be improved by learning from the results of past choices.

Public accounts of the decisions reached in the privacy of the President's office yield little evidence that Bush engaged in much after-action learning. Bob Woodward concluded at the end of his latest volume, The War Within, that President Bush "remains a man of few doubts, still following his gut, convinced that the path he has chosen is right."

Getting to the point of decision is an essential quality for any leader. But to paraphrase a well known aphorism, leaders who fail to reflect on their past decisions are condemned to repeat the worst of them.

By Michael Useem

 |  January 6, 2009; 11:52 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Not being afraid to make tough decisions is a virtue?

The virtue is in making the RIGHT DECISIONS, not the fearlessness behind actually addressing an issue.

The parallel is contained in that famous baseball poem Casey at the Bat. Casey decided not to address the first 2 pitches, even sneering at one of them (same as "bring 'em on!?").

On the third pitch, though, he took a mighty swing.

The poem ends with:

"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out."

Like Bush, Casey was consumed with hubris. But Casey's was followed by immense shame.

There is no shame within this wrecking crew of a President, and his miss had far more serious consequences for the US and the world at large than Casey's whiff.

In the Good Ol' Days the onlookers might have had a large timber and buckets of tar and a goodly supply of feather pillows to escort the miscreant outa Dodge in a certain style. Sadly, those days are gone, as is 43, but certainly he will not be forgotten for a very long time.

Posted by: can8tiv | January 20, 2009 4:03 PM
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Hubrid, personified! Evil cloaked in self-righteousness!

Posted by: Chaotician | January 6, 2009 1:48 PM
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