Can Anyone Really Run This Place?
The Vanity Fair article that has all of Washington buzzing may be the one in the upcoming issue about Sarah Palin. But the one that's the most essential read for any student of leadership and management is this one in the current issue about President Obama's overwhelmingly unwieldy way of running the country.
"Washington, We Have a Problem," Todd Purdum's ambitious analysis of the dysfunctional state of the federal government, is a worthwhile but flawed piece. Its suffers, in a sense from the same flaw as its subject: trying to do too much. By examining the never-ending news cycle, the exponential growth of the lobbying industry and the sad state of Congress, we're left with little more than a lot of depressing stuff we already know -- with the possible exception of the revelation that the president drinks a rare martini.
But it asks a critical question, and one that's sure to become a political lightning rod when it shouldn't be: Can anybody really manage this place? It's a question leaders should be asking not only of their president, but of the CEOs of almost any major global corporation operating today.
Republicans will say, of course, that the government has grown so colossally large during the Obama administration that the management problem is of his own making. Meanwhile, Democrats will counter that the total obstruction of Republican lawmakers would make it impossible for anyone to be effective in the president's job. Both are right in some regard.
Whatever your political persuasion, the sheer scope of the presidency is staggering. The Vanity Fair story, which is told in a day-of-the-president's-life narrative, recounts the vast number of decisions and crises Obama and his staff face on one otherwise unremarkable day: a West Virginia coal-mine tragedy, a vacancy on the Supreme Court, a new immigration law in Arizona, a shortage of disaster-relief funds, the latest plans for trying an alleged terrorist and a series of federal judicial nominations.
The government's size, of course, is one obvious cause of the president's management conundrum. As Purdum writes, "on the eve of World War II, F.D.R. had six high-level aides who carried the title 'administrative assistant to the President.' ... There are now upwards of 100 of them." The Federal Register, he notes, which acts as the daily record of new government regulations, presidential decrees and administrative orders, among other things, is 350 pages on the same unremarkable day. "The sheer size of government makes juggling a fact of life," Purdum writes, "and to some extent, an impossibility."
But is size really the root of the quandary? Over at FedBlog, Tom Shoop makes the smart observation that perhaps the problem is really one of micromanagement. Shoop posits that the problem is not the government's expanding size but a structure by which, as Purdum writes, "the entire executive branch funnels through the White House."
The cure for dysfunctional government, Shoop suggests, is to simply trust people to do their jobs. As an illustration, he offers up the BP oil spill, and the job Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was able to do once he was given the authority to deal with the crisis at hand. "Instead of exhausting themselves by seeking to manage the entire government from the West Wing of the White House, the president and his aides might try trusting the people who have devoted their careers to federal service," Shoop writes.
No matter how much we like to turn our presidents and global CEOs into celebrities, no matter how much we prefer to reward heros and identify victims when large systems succeed or fail, and of course, no matter how powerful and transformative a good leader can be, there is a limit to what one person can do. But the answer is not necessarily to make our organizations smaller, though there is certainly an argument for that in many cases. Rather, the key to leading ever larger organizations may be to let go of the reins a little. The best thing leaders can do is not to make all the right decisions, but to empower the people who work for them to make them instead.
Read more from Jena McGregor:
September 2, 2010; 11:04 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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