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Trite but True: He Got it Half Right

Christopher J. Dorobek’s “Incoming” column focused on good leadership. I once was as misguided as Dorobek, but no more. I hope it is not too late to affect his thinking—and yours as well.

This viewpoint is in response to the “Incoming” column published in SIGNAL Magazine, August 2009, page 112. (scroll to Related section for link)

Christopher J. Dorobek’s “Incoming” column focused on good leadership. I once was as misguided as Dorobek, but no more. I hope it is not too late to affect his thinking—and yours as well.

Dorobek starts with a question: “What does it mean to be a leader?” He notes that a recent search of Amazon.com for books about leadership yielded almost 350,000 hits. And he mentions some of the classic works on leadership by Warren Bennis, John Maxwell, Donald T. Phillips and Steven F. Hayward.

I have read most of these works. I’ve quoted them in speeches, presentations and interviews. I aspired to be—and be seen as—a leader: agile and innovative, enabling people to think independently. These are the three attributes Dorobek sees as key to leadership today. I wanted even more; I wanted to be a visionary, to inspire, to create transparency, to lead by guiding, to model the way, to listen first, to entrust, to ….I grow weary. Needless to say, I could never be a true leader.

Finally, Dorobek notes that, “… too often we confuse leadership with management.” Other than this sentence, management, manager and managing are mentioned only twice in his column. That doesn’t strike me as fair or balanced.

A similar search of the book catalog on Amazon.com for literature about management came up with 105,818 hits—less than a third of those on leadership that Dorobek unearthed. I will not cite many remarkable books about management, about administration or about implementation, but I want to note two in particular. The first is by Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron B. Wildavsky. The subtitle of this insightful volume says it all: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All. The second is Paul C. Light’s recent volume, A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It. Light’s book is based on Alexander Hamilton’s warning about the dangers of a government ill executed. As Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 70, “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

As government programs and agencies today have become more complex, the ability to make them work has diminished. As we review the current government landscape, it is littered with failures such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) response to Hurricane Katrina, the Food and Drug Administration’s inability to stop dangerous foods from reaching dining tables, the collapse of financial markets, outrageous Ponzi schemes, and on and on. Are these failures of leadership? There might be an element of that, but more likely they are failures of management; they are failures to execute.

There are many reasons for this. While the federal acquisition work force remains largely flat—increasing about 3 percent since fiscal year 1999—federal contracting dollars have more than doubled. Because of past presidential administrations’ efforts to downsize the federal work force, the government has come to rely on the private sector. As a result, the number of contract workers has grown to 7.5 million—four times the size of the federal work force.

What today can and should be viewed as inherently governmental? Is there the risk that, in the words of Warren Suss, an information technology consultant, the government could wind up outsourcing its brain? The ability of the government to attract, retain and develop a top-notch work force has been questioned. Congress has been accused of micromanaging the work of the executive branch. Legislative and policy initiatives of the past decade have not succeeded in redirecting the management of government’s most critical asset: the people who perform its work. One of the reasons we struggle with issues such as health care, education and the environment is that we pay scant attention to the difficulty and the importance of working together and across boundaries, both interagency and intergovernmental.

Never before have we so badly needed new and big ideas on government management, and never before have we needed strong managers and leaders in government. But, as professor Donald Kehl at the University of Maryland has said, “Never before have we been so bereft of both.”

Our need today is not for more agile, innovative, enabling leaders. It is not for transformative leadership. It’s not for rock stars or heavy hitters or big thinkers. The future is about managing risks and expenses. It’s about delivering and executing. It’s about solid management, administration and execution.

For at least the last 30-plus years, we have been over-led and under-managed. What we need today is more and better management. We need potential articles such as “Trite but True: It All Comes Down to Management.”

Alan P. Balutis (abalutis@cisco.com) is the director and distinguished fellow for Cisco Business Solutions Group. Comments to this viewpoint can be made on the SIGNAL Magazine SIGNAL Scape blog (www.afcea.org/signal/signalscape).