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Can Elizabeth Warren turn her vision into reality?

If leaders are judged by the zeal of their followers, Elizabeth Warren should be a pretty good one.

At this writing, more than 160,000 people, most of them presumably progressive, have signed a petition to name the Harvard law professor to run the new consumer protection agency formed as part of the financial reform legislation. A coalition of 250 consumer groups and unions, ranging from AARP to the AFL-CIO, have endorsed Warren, who is viewed as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's godmother, to run it. While she has her opponents, some on the left are such ardent followers of Warren that they're viewing her nomination as a litmus test for the Obama presidency.

But my counterparts over at Political Economy raise an interesting question. Elizabeth Warren may be a good leader. But can she manage?

She may well be an extraordinary manager who can finesse the policymaking process and who would have as deft a touch at managing an agency's internal politics as she is at managing her public profile. But given that she doesn't have that experience--or much policymaking experience at all--on her resume, the burden of proof will likely be on she and her allies to make that case.

I don't know enough about Warren's management skills to weigh in with an answer. But I do know there is a difference, and a big one, that many corporations, federal agencies and nonprofit institutions overlook. And in Warren's case, I know which one matters more.

Many organizations' human resource and personnel departments are obsessed with the leadership development industry, spending untold sums to bring in "thought leaders" to give inspiring speeches and send managers away on fancy leadership retreats. They want to foster "leaders at every level," calling everyone from the chief executive to a junior accounting manager running a two-person team a leader.

I'm all for inspiring people to do great work. And there's little question that our corporations and federal bureaucracies could use all the help they can get encouraging admirable behavior. But the day to day work that most managers do--making strategically wise decisions, setting realistic budgets, navigating political infighting--is management, and should get at least equal billing when it comes to training, coaching and spending.

Most well-run organizations value both, and know that each has its time and its place. If Warren is selected as nothing more than an interim head, her leadership skills will count most. In that role, she'll need to set the initial tone of the agency and lure the best and brightest staff members. But if she gets the nomination and is forced to execute on her vision, her management chops will be needed to succeed in the long run.

Then again, this is Washington. With concerns over Warren's chances at Senate confirmation, and opposition to Warren from the banking industry, and reportedly, Secretary Geithner (who has since stated his support), neither one may matter in the end. The person named to run the new consumer protection agency may not be a great manager or a great leader. But he--or she--will certainly be a good politician.

By Jena McGregor

 |  July 20, 2010; 11:17 AM ET |  Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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If Elizabeth Warren can manage, then fine. If she has no experience, why can't she have a deputy who has experience in credit financing?

Posted by: Ken39 | July 22, 2010 4:34 PM

This may sound nit-picky, but . . . you quote from "Political Economy" that "the burden of proof will likely be on she and her allies . . . " Do you REALLY have to quote verbatim, without even a [sic] or something comparable, to distance The Post from such hideous grammar??!? Although it has become distressingly common even for "educated" writers to use "he" and "she" instead of "him" and "her," does a publication of The Post's stature have to further blur the lines between correct and incorrect? Even blogs have editors, don't they?

On the substantive side, I would just register my vote for Ms. Warren to run the new consumer financial protection agency. Give her a deputy who's experienced in managing a government bureaucracy, but let her do what she can do best: put this new agency on the right footing by imbuing the staff with her passion and solid legal analysis. The devil is in the details, and this is especially true when it comes to agency regulations -- such regulations can either solidify and perpetuate the legislative intent of a law, or they can totally subvert it. The George W. Bush administration fiendishly succeeded at the latter, rendering toothless a wide range of laws from the environment to workplace safety. By making Elizabeth Warren the first head of this new financial agency, President Obama would be taking a significant step toward giving the agency the teeth it will need in the coming decades.

Posted by: WahooRicky | July 21, 2010 2:55 PM

And I thought we had already hired every genius from the Cambridge area. How can Harvard exist with our government taking all their talent.

Oh well. Welcome to the United States of Harvard, where we are alot smarter than you and will tell you what's good for you, so sit down and shut up.

Posted by: dcharlson | July 21, 2010 12:34 PM

It's about time

Posted by: dfwtexan55 | July 21, 2010 12:21 PM

Grammar police here: the burden would be on HER. The burden is never on "she."

So, she's an academic and hasn't run an agency before. This differs from the typical plum appointment -- HOW? I would say that we have more than enough evidence that she is smart and capable, which is a lot more than we have for most people appointed to run things. But this issue is more visceral than that: she has demonstrated an understanding of the consumer's subservience to the financial sector. That is the appropriate attitude to have in this position, and is lacking in most anyone of note with the "experience" for the position.

I don't think any one who watches this issue trust Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and their ilk to be involved in this appointment. They have repeatedly demonstrated that their entire focus - their worldview - is centered on Wall Street.

Posted by: BadMommy1 | July 21, 2010 7:00 AM

In a variety of innovative organizations I've had experience with over the years, great leaders with unproven management skills have been hired for their leadership and their ability to keep the goals of the organization clear while a second-in-command with management skills is, in effect, the chief operating officer. Nothing too unusual about leadership teams, though I wouldn't be surprised if Warren -- who, after all, manages her three current and quite distinct jobs very well -- turns out to be as good a manager as she is an inspiring and tenacious leader.

Posted by: texassideoats | July 21, 2010 6:06 AM

Treasury Secretary Geithner runs the IRS, even though he could not manage to file his own tax returns. Strange things happen in DC.

Posted by: morphnmomma | July 21, 2010 2:25 AM

She is the only clear voice I've heard that understands that even credit card companies have to follow contract law instead of running financial dictatorships in which they levy private taxes up to 30% per year while loaning out the taxpayers free 0% money.

Unbelievably blind nation.

Posted by: gmss | July 20, 2010 10:01 PM

Read the lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday. This is the "era of symbolic reform." After announcing that liberals Tyson and Sperling were the leading candidates to succeed Orszag at OMB, Obama appointed yet another official of the past who held the job of 1998-2001, a Rubin-Summmers de-regulator who went on to Citi to enrich himself by the rules he helped write. Is there no good candidate from Bush I administration who can be the proper reassuring symbol?

Posted by: jhough1 | July 20, 2010 5:51 PM

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