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Mickey Edwards
Political leader

Mickey Edwards

Former U.S. Congressman, Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

Advisors, not deciders

Q: Like many leaders, George Bush relied on trusted advisors like Karl Rove for advice and strategy. How can a leader draw the line between receiving good advice and being overly influenced by a strong advisor?

From Rasputin to Kissinger, there have often been men and women whose counsel helped shape important decisions. Perhaps the first test of any presumed leader's ability to truly exercise leadership, as opposed to merely wielding authority, is in deciding whose knowledge, experience, and judgment to take into account. But in doing so there are several important rules:

First, the person whose authority is to be exercised -- a president, in this case -- must have sufficient self confidence to understand that he or she is ultimately responsible for the decisions made. Often the "advisor" will have a more impressive list of credentials -- expertise, length and variety of service -- than the person being advised. It may be hard to resist arguments drawn from such quarters, especially if one has no comparable expertise or experience. But the exercise of leadership requires bending one's one mind to the task and knowing when to set aside doubts and when to go with one's instincts. Advisors, after all, are only that: They are not decision-makers, and it is a distinction the true decision-maker must understand.

Second, there must be a sufficient diversity of input, or at least input from enough sources, to ensure that the person seeking advice is being adequately served. As a member of Congress, I insisted that each issue briefing from my staff include alternatives, options, arguments from both supporters and opponents of any matter to be voted upon.

Third, decision-makers must be prepared for the process of receiving advice. That is, they must be armed with penetrating questions and challenges. "Experts" must be made to validate their advice.

Fourth, the decisio-nmaker must insist on a careful look at consequences and ramifications. "If we follow the course you recommend, what will be the likely effect?" It was this question that was not sufficiently pursued in the decision to send troops into Iraq.

Finally, there must be a careful understanding of the time frame in which a decision must be made. In the Cuban missile crisis, with a Soviet missile capability in the process of deployment near our shores, it was vital to act with dispatch. But Barack Obama was right to take enough time to think through the necessity of sending additional troops to Afghanistan and to resist demands that he act precipitously. Some situations require rapid response but whenever possible, sufficient time must be allowed to carefully examine the arguments and to test them, even in the face of advisors who seem assured of the wisdom of their counsel.

By Mickey Edwards

 |  March 4, 2010; 6:26 AM ET
Category:  A leader's team Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Queen Elizabeth the first of England had lots of advisors, She always listened to what they had to say, and then weighed the options and made her own decisions sometimes using the advice, but most times not. But she always strived to get different perspectives, to make a well founded decision. She was one of the greatest leaders of history, and a woman well before her time.

Posted by: katem1 | March 4, 2010 8:57 AM
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