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Top Secret America: What we learn from 'too big to fail'

Sometimes, the news makes news. And today is one of those days: The Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series, a two-year investigation into the intelligence community's unprecedented growth since 9/11, is being reported on here and here and here.

But lest I be accused of simply promoting our own site, there's a leadership point here. And an important one.

The series' reporters, Dana Priest and William Arkin, write that the result of all that unwieldy, unchecked growth is that the system "is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine." Because the colossal intelligence network "lacks a synchronizing process," as one retired officer is quoted in today's story as saying, "it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness, and waste." In a nutshell, the authors conclude, the exponential scale of today's intelligence network is simply too big to lead.

One could say the same about many global corporations today. While the size and sprawl of the intelligence community makes even the largest corporations look small, the incredible complexity of both worlds make the comparison apt. In both cases, competing interests and turf wars are constant obstacles to efficiency. Overwhelming amounts of information are impossible for even the hardest working zealots to take in. And despite the deluge of data, getting it shared across silos remains a monumental challenge.

Such convolution, after all, makes it nearly impossible for leaders to stay on top of the inner workings of their enterprise. Consider BP, and its embattled CEO Tony Hayward's repeated defense in Congressional hearings. How much time and money did the company save when it did the corner-cutting that critics claim? He simply didn't know.

In other cases, such size can put the whole organization in peril, or conversely, weigh it down from future growth. Investors have long clamored for General Electric to split off portions of the industrial behemoth--whether its slow-growing media unit, NBC Universal (Comcast acquired a controlling interest in December), or the riskier aspects of its titanic financial arm, GE Capital, where profits capsized amid the financial crisis.

Massive scale, after all, can put far more than the organization itself at risk. It was not just speculative bets the world's banks made amid the housing bubble that brought the global economy to its knees, but the labyrinthine magnitude of their size.

To be sure, the problems facing the intelligence community's sprawling growth dwarf that of global companies. Bloat, redundancy, and waste are not as common in recession-era Corporate America. And the Director of National Intelligence's lack of clear legal or budgetary authority, the Post's story states, is far different from the clear management role of any corporation's CEO.

Still, the rampant escalation of our institutions' size is something that must concern all leaders. Both are the direct result of money's influence--whether unchecked spending on security in the years since 9/11 or the insatiable thirst for growth from Wall Street. While there are no easy answers, two things are clear: Such enormous size is beyond the scope of mere mortals to manage, and at some point, all that complexity has its consequences. Too big to lead is too big to fail, and we all know where that got us.

By Jena McGregor

 |  July 19, 2010; 9:43 AM ET |  Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Is too big to lead too big to fail? Interesting question and case to be made. Size, however, should not abdicate responsibility around instilling proper vision and values throughout an organization. In the case of BP, the CEO and board's decision to deeply cut operational costs, which led to sacrifices in safety, set the tone for the disaster that followed. This tone is as much a behavioral-driven action as anything any individual manager can accomplish on his or her own without adequate controls. Leadership is not management nor is management leadership. Unfortunately in far too many large corporate settings, the two have become so mixed and matched that too big to lead and too big to fail have grown interchangeable. Thanks for a provocative topic.

Posted by: jgarlington | July 20, 2010 10:27 AM

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