Experts and advisers and leaders, oh my
Q: Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama White House portrays a president so frustrated with top military advisers for their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan that he devised one himself. How should leaders reconcile the laudable instinct to rely on the advice of experts with the sometimes urgent need to force them to think outside the box?
The challenge of being a leader is to wade through expert information and make decisions that are informed, not directed, by the available scholarship. This distinction is important because a survey of any critical debate that takes place in our country would show that there are "experts" to be found advocating responses on all sides of a given issue. This was certainly the case in Obama's search for a workable Afghanistan strategy; Vice President Biden, for example, argued vigorously against the plan ultimately chosen by Obama. Being a leader requires that you trust yourself and your vision of what the world can be, not just what the experts tell you it is.
Take a recent piece on NPR in which two experts argued about the health benefits of napping at work versus using caffeine to stay alert. Not surprisingly, each expert advocated a different position. I raise this not to undermine the research or knowledge of any expert, but to suggest that the designation of an expert is not equivalent to an infallible information source or a correct judgment. Are we surprised to hear that two highly informed and educated individuals can differ in their understanding and advice on an issue? No. In fact, listening to the story, most people implicitly understand that the expert's conflicting advice is helpful mostly as a way to tease out the possible outcomes and consequences of taking either action. Applying this more broadly, it seems clear that we hold our leaders, not our experts, responsible for decisions. As such, it is a leader's responsibility to make decisions that s/he can believe in and defend, regardless of the role expert opinion played in the process. --Elana Goldstein
Expertise draws its truth from a narrowed rationalistic perception, honed from repeated training and experience in a particular way of examining a question. Due to his rigorous, systematized pedigree, an expert has little reason to pay heed to contrasting viewpoints that don't translate well to his style of inquiry. By rationalism's mandate, he must inherently neglect moral impulses (colloquially known as the "gut check") and remove his mind from his gut.
Professional rigor demands no less than what the modern expert gives to his work, indeed this strict adherence adds to the strength of modern civilization. The leader does not. His role is fundamentally human and must continue to create the same way as throughout time: irrationally. Aside from art, it is one of the last remaining vestiges of unrefined humanity. The gut check dominates an effective leader. And thus his reasoning resonates. --Farid E Ben Amor
A generation who judges its importance by numbers of blog followers and Facebook friends is bereft of leadership that dares to be unpopular. However, the "unpopular" role is one that leaders often have to play. If expert advice conflicts with what leadership senses is the best course of action, I believe that the leaders reserve the rights to call such advice into question, demand revision and amendment, and act against trend. Time is the most important factor that I consider when deciding between counsel and visceral direction. Is the information that I am receiving painting a fresh portrait or rehashing stale statistics? When was the last time (and for how long) was the "informant" in the field, with the people who are most affected by the leader's decisions?
Finally, I believe that all new advice should be weighed against original intent. While necessity may dictate changes in design and execution, I would question any counsel (expert or otherwise) that supplanted the integrity of the mission for causes of lesser value or self-preservation. When information we have on "good authority" conflicts with moral authority, we, as leaders, must take a stand and act justly, whether it makes foes of our friends or fools of our counselors.--Antoinette Grier
We each have our own set of experiences that inform our knowledge base, analytical process and values we bring to decision-making. Experts, by definition, have a deeper expertise in a particular issue than even the most enlightened leader. Their views thus should inform our leaders' decisions. Yet we choose leaders not because they have the greatest depth in any particular area, but because of how they see the world, their vision of what it should become, and our confidence in their ability to effectively actualize it. In short, we want our leaders to have breadth.
In football, the expert at playing linebacker is the starting linebacker. He knows how the game is effectively played now because he is the one playing it. Yet the coach provides a breadth of knowledge--techniques that have been useful, strategies that can create a defense out of 11 individuals, and the emotional glue to put that all together. No player, no matter how good or "expert" at their position, can as effectively tie together the big picture. As my coach always said, "Players play. Coaches coach." Experts provide deeper understanding that comes from time, knowledge, intellect and experience. But that is no substitute for leadership. Leaders should contextualize that expertise within their larger worldview. That's why we choose them: societies need a vision to bring us together.--Patrick Atwater
Making effective decisions is a daunting task for the leader. It requires an awareness of the interaction between outside stimulus and internal evaluation. Sometimes referred to as a 'gut instinct', the internal evaluation mechanism is greatly undervalued. Information from even the most skilled expert can be skewed since no decision can be completely separate from one's values, motives, histories and paradigms. If Madoff's advice had been taken less blindly, perhaps speculators may have realized that what sounds too good to be true usually is too good to be true. Expected outcomes are in their best case an educated prediction. Leaders, with perhaps the broadest sense of all the underlying factors involved in a dilemma, should have the duty and obligation to consult their own sense of what is right before making any decisions. And although instincts can be clouded with emotion, misinformation and ignorance, so can expert opinion.
In order to be truly effective, leaders need to develop an unbiased awareness of their instincts and a proficiency in using them efficiently, remaining objective and removed from brash motives. Fenty's loss of the Democratic nomination for mayor is a recent case of failing to recognize the latter. If advice is taken without any internalized evaluation, however, there is a huge risk. While it may appear less risky to trust an expert, accepting advice from anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, must come after it has been processed in the context of a leader's sense of what is right. If more leaders embrace their instinctual capacity with a high degree of objectivity and honesty toward themselves, far more innovative and effective solutions will flourish throughout organizations and government.--Tim Golden
In 1864, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln studied military texts as he considered taking command over the Union Army due to the inability of the generals to provide reasonable strategies. In recent history, Carly Fiorina left her post as CEO of HP in 2005 due to strategy disagreement with the board. Needless to say, Woodward writes about a conflict that is not new. In the private sector, there is a bit more accountability, as the CEO can always be blamed and replaced if stakeholders are not satisfied. In the public sector, however, due to the deliberate separation of powers, the blame is not so easily placed. The inherent disagreement between leaders in the United States is a reality now as much as it has always been. If President Obama is convinced that his strategy is superior to those of his advisers, he has the ability to put his plan in action and assume command.
In Woodward's personal interview with President Obama, Obama states, "Wars absorb so much energy on the part of any administration that even if people are doing an outstanding job, if they're in the middle of a war--particularly one that's going badly, as it was, obviously, for a three-year stretch there in Iraq--that's taking up a huge amount of energy on the part of everybody. And that means that there are some things that get left undone."
Each position in an organization has its unique role. It is my firm belief that there must be more accountability in the leadership position. There must exist a trusting relationship between leaders and their advisers or board of directors. It is the responsibility of an adviser to provide the needed facts and strategic plan in order for the leader to make a coherent decision. It is the role of a leader to take into consideration the strategic plan and advice of his/her advisers, make a decision based on the information provided by the advisers as well as any outside information the leader may be aware of, and lastly be ready to face the consequences of the decision he/she makes.--Jessica Gray
September 28, 2010; 9:51 AM ET
Category: A leader's team , Accomplishing Goals , Government leadership , Organizational Culture , Presidential leadership Save & Share:
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