Tuesday, May 30, 2006

GWB and his MBA

Thomas Lifson is one of the few journalists who have examined GWB's training at the Harvard Business School and the influence of that training on his conduct as president.


The White House Shifts Gears

While I applaud Lifson for taking this question seriously, I think he has provided only a partial picture. He tends to see only favorable outcomes arising from Bush's time at B-school. There are a couple of unsettling facets to it as well. Moreover, these may explain part of Bush's problems as president.

To take care of a couple of quick hits I've discussed previously.

1. Lifson writes:
The very first lesson drummed-into new students, as they file into the classrooms of Aldrich Hall, is that management consists of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. There is never perfect information, and decisions often have to be made even when you'd really prefer to know a lot more.

I discussed the conventional case study method here. I'm not sold on the idea that it is great training for strategic leaders. Decision-making under uncertainty is the sine qua non of strategic leadership. Paralysis by analysis is a constant danger. But it is possible to veer too far in the other direction. A bias for deciding can stifle curiosity. In a case study no one has extra information. The meta-lesson is that "no one knows more than I do." In real life, a little extra digging, some pointed questions, some humility, can prevent a lot of mistakes.

Further, the conventional case study may not be very good training for a war president as discussed here.

He is a trained strategist, an MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, where he learned that the point of having a strategy is to win when it counts, not just to feel good about yourself at every moment of the process.
I discussed the weaknesses of the business strategy literature in two posts on Clausewitz. (See here and here.) In particular, I contrasted Clausewitz's approach with Michael Porter's who was Bush's professor at Harvard:
Porter, however, differs radically in his approach. Clausewitz presents descriptive theories, his aim is to help the future commander prepare himself for the challenges he will face. In contrast, Porter's work is intensely prescriptive. His Five-factor framework and generic strategies are templates waiting for the executive's implementation.

Porter's, then, implies that the key to business strategy is "knowing". The doing will almost take care of itself. Clausewitz never presumed that the science of war (which gets studied in peacetime) could ever supplant the art of war (which wins actual battles and campaigns).
Bush, I worry, sometimes falls into the knowing trap. He shows admirable determination to stick with a decision, but he is not so interested in the hard work required to translate the decision into action. Similarly he fails to see that as a politician, he must rally and re-rally public support for that decision. Finally, he and Rumsfeld also seem to be oblivious to Clausewitz's subtle argument about the importance and limits of will. To quote myself:

Determination, however, is not a panacea. Note that Clausewitz warned that "it wears down the machine as well." Just as there are no good one factor economic models, so there is no magic trait that defines military greatness for Clausewitz.
My main issue with Lifson is that he never acknowledges GWB's MBA training took place in a bygone era of management studies. I won't call them the "dark ages" or the "bad old days". Let's simply call it the pre-HAPW era.

In 1980 Robert H. Hayes and William J. Abernathy published a shocking article in the Harvard Business Review-"Managing Our Way to Economic Decline". It was a harsh critique of American management methods that laid a large share of the blame for America's dismal economic performance on the methods taught at Harvard and other B-schools. Shortly thereafter Peters and Waterman published In Search of Excellence which brought a lot of issues to the forefront that were ignored in the traditional MBA curriculum.

This article by Tom Peters provides a good picture of the context in which his book and the HA article were produced.

Bush's view of the executive seems to reflects some of the weaknesses of the pre-HAPW era. In particular, his "I'm a decider" is all well and good but what about the executive's role as preacher/teacher (Jack Welch), Management by Walking Around, leadership as an improvisational art? Those are important for a corporate CEO; they are critical for a political leader. Bush did not learn about them as an MBA and it shows in his performance as president.

Lifson does note a weakness in Bush's leadership style:

George W. Bush is a natural delegator, an executive who seeks the best possible people to work for him, instills loyalty (by practicing it himself), and then gives them plenty of room to operate. His "sins" as an executive have been, and are likely to remain those of a loose leash, allowing ineffective subordinates too much time and too much room. This is why it has taken him so long to remove certain cabinet officials.

This is true as far as it goes. However, there are other issues at work as well. One of the real problems of the pre-HAWP organization was the power of central staffs and the crippling of line managers and those closest to the customer. A small group at headquarters rode herd on those in the field. (Examples: Harold Geneen at ITT and McNamara's Whiz Kids at the Pentagon.) One of Jack Welch's first steps at GE was to dismantle most of the central staff groups that populated headquarters. One of Dave Packards last acts at HP was to return to the company and do the same.

If you look at Lifson's examples, that same tendency is apparent; Bush's loyalty has been to "his people"-White House staffers, cabinet officers, etc. He shows very little loyalty, sympathy, or understanding for the broader coalition he leads-Republicans, conservatives, the military. He too often treats them as pawns whose only role is to obey the decisions he has made. He was willing to embarrass Senate Republicans by nominating Miers to the Supreme Court, he is willing undercut the Republican House on immigration, he panders on gas prices and was wobbly on the rights of gun owners. He is a wartime president who passes out Medals of Freedom to Muhammad Ali and neocon polemicists.

In sum, I see more reasons for pessimism than Lifson. The last couple of years of any administration are difficult. The habits of mind that GWB formed at HBS might make his especially difficult.

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