Debate v. decision
Q: President Obama, who is said to be wary of "outsiders," is facing his first senior-staff shuffle, in which he'll lose two of his closest aides. Do you see such times of change -- in Obama's example and in your own experience -- as a positive or a negative? Do you see your success as coming mostly from following your instincts and sticking to a tight-knit group of advisers, or from collaborating with a wide array of people?
"It's lonely at the top." That's not just a cliche. A weak leader appears to be the puppet of a shadow cabinet. A good leader is not beholden to any particular aide, no matter how valued or trusted. A great leader encourages loud debate among advisers with opposing points of view, and then makes an independent decision.
The modern American presidency, since at least the early 20th Century, has reflected the increasingly complex web of party and policy relationships that make it possible for one candidate to emerge victorious from the cauldron of a campaign. No individual candidate can possibly survive the primary rounds without a phalanx of advisers and consultants who often take the brunt of the pummeling for their man (still, it's most often a man). In reality, Americans elect not one person, but rather, an entire team.
With his advisers, the triumphant candidate then shapes both an official cabinet and the closest body of advisers who run the presidency. In each recent administration, strong personalities have emerged who have, at one time or another, appeared to dominate or even control the president. Think: Dick Cheney for George W. Bush; Hillary Clinton for Bill Clinton; James Baker for Ronald Reagan; H.R. Haldeman for Richard Nixon.
President Barack Obama surrounded himself with his Chicago friends in the White House, thus giving at least the appearance of walling himself away from more diverse opinions that he might have heard from unfamiliar sources. This isolation seemed greatly at odds with the approachable Obama persona on the campaign trail, leading to some of the disaffection that has plagued his presidency among people who once were his fans. In short, he froze out new people who wanted to be on his team in favor of the people he already knew and trusted.
No leadership position is immune from the darts of the armchair critics who try to second-guess the leader's decisions by trying to figure out which aide was most influential. Sometimes, the armchair inhabitants are the aides, themselves -- or at least those whose advice was not followed.
As a college president, I have many trusted advisers, some of whom have worked with me for as long as I've been at Trinity. They are hard-working, insightful, often brilliant, and very loyal. I appreciate them very much!
But I've also learned that I must own the ultimate decisions, giving broad credit for what works while being willing to take responsibility for what does not work. That might be the hardest part of leadership -- everybody needs and wants credit for success, but nobody wants to own failure. But the leader must own it; bad leaders lay blame and use aides as excuses for failure. Great leaders take risks and share success broadly.
Good instincts are important for any leader, but going on instinct alone can blind the leader to the right decision. Knowing how to invite and weigh the advice of advisers, even advice that runs against the leader's bias, is a talent that takes a good deal of practice as well as enough humility to recognize your own bad idea.
Recently, I had to make an important decision about a major project for Trinity. With my team of advisers at Trinity, we received proposals, conducted interviews, and went through a rigorous process to evaluate the choices. At the end, I came up with one preference, but people on my team whose advice I really value had other preferences. We had many discussions, and it took me longer than usual to make the decision because I wanted to consider every dimension.
We had a great debate, but I had to make the decision. In the end, I saw the wisdom of my advisers and went with their choice, and it turned out to be exactly right -- I give them credit for helping me to see the light!
Years ago, I might have been more eager to prove that I could figure it out by myself -- and I would have been wrong. In fact, my batting average for good decisions has improved as I've developed more confidence in the wisdom of a talented group of advisers to analyze our collective choices.
If the decision had turned out badly, of course, then it would have been mine alone. That's what presidents have to do, whether in a university or a country. Good advice is essential, but ultimately, the leader stands alone.