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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Blinded by the lights

Q: In confronting the issue of Gen. McChrystal's apparent insubordination, did President Obama have any choice but to remove him? Going forward, what can Gen. Petraeus do to overcome this dramatic shakeup and keep his troops reassured and on mission?

We live in a world where people are famous for being famous, academics and thought leaders get ranked by the number of Google searches and links, and people crash White House dinners to build their notoriety so they can get on television. Little wonder, then, that generals let their guard down for Rolling Stone freelance reporters and then wind up on the cover. The phrase "runaway" is almost certainly never a good adjective to precede "general."

The issue with Stanley McChrystal wasn't insubordination but incredibly poor judgment. People in power face unrelenting public scrutiny. Therefore, powerful people learn to be on stage and scripted or else ensure their privacy if they are going to let their hair down. The press thrives on controversy--which sells copies. And McChrystal and his colleagues provided plenty of fodder.

The late sociologist Robert Merton noted that competition for the limelight in science stimulated scientific discovery, as scientists tried to beat each other to the next great idea. But science, particularly decades ago when Merton was writing, entails relatively little interdependence--what one lab does has little effect on the performance of some competing scientific group. The conduct of complex, difficult foreign policy is, by contrast, fraught with interdependence--links between diplomatic and military initiatives, and connections among the various aspects of waging war. In such a situation, lone rangers and publicity hounds are counterproductive, regardless of how talented they are.

I wonder how many high level leaders--those modest, self-effacing CEOs that made their companies so successful, we will be able to find in the future. Collins' analysis of why such a leadership style is effective is right on target. The problem is that in a world in which so many people are playing to the crowd, substituting buzz for substance, the temptations that make it hard to eschew the limelight and the larger-than-life image that goes with it are hard to ignore.

The lesson for McChrystal's successor, and for that matter, anyone in a powerful and visible position in any organization, seems clear. Concentrate on the work and avoid any unnecessary public scrutiny. It's hard enough to do a good job with your full concentration and attention on the task, and with your team focused on the work. Getting caught up in the ever-present "star search" dynamic is a prescription for disaster, particularly if you take your eye off the requirement to take care of, not publicly criticize, your boss.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  June 24, 2010; 10:59 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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