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A Bad CEO

One of the small downsides of writing a blog is that you can never claim to have had an idea before someone else. If you had the idea, you should have written it -- what excuse is there? An editor sat on it? What editor? Trying to find more evidence to prove the thesis? It's a blog -- Who needs evidence?

So all I could do was say "Right On" when Kevin Drum put forward the compelling suggestion that Bush should be understood exactly as he wants to be known, as "the CEO President," adding

but the world is full to bursting with CEOs who have goals they would dearly love to attain but who lack either the skill or the fortitude to make them happen. They assign tasks to subordinates without making sure the subordinates are capable of doing them — but then consider the job done anyway because they've "delegated" it. They insist they want a realistic plan, but they're unwilling to do the hard work of creating one — all those market research reports are just a bunch of ivory tower nonsense anyway. They work hard — but only on subjects in their comfort zone. If they like dealing with people they can't bring themselves to read all those tedious analyst's reports, and if they like numbers they can't bring themselves to spend time chattering with distributors about their latest prospect.

I consider that one of the most insightful paragraphs that's been written about Bush yet, which is why the idea is catching on. I'm kicking myself, though, because I've had a draft blog post sitting around dated April 17 with the title, "The Bad CEO." I set it aside when I felt it was getting too tendentious, and that my argument depended on generalizations about corporate culture, and I don't know that much about life in corporations. But Kevin does, I believe, and his statement of the case is persuasive for its understanding of just what makes a bad CEO. And with his point as grounding, I'll try to salvage a little of what I wrote earlier.

Kevin strengthens my instinct that this is exactly the right way to understand the Bush presidency. Rather than trying to understand Bush in terms of his father, Nixon, Reagan, Harding, Taft, Grant, or some other presidential model, the books to read are the accounts of the failures of great American companies at the hands of incompetent leaders, like David Halberstam's The Reckoning or the books about the savings and loan crisis or the failure of IBM. And keeping the Bad CEO imagine in mind will be the way to defeat Bush. It's a familiar archetype to Americans, and it's exactly right. It helps you understand that he's not so much a born liar as a guy in so far over his head that he starts making things up to keep the stock price high. And he's not a moron, just a guy who would have made a perfectly competent regional vice president, but somehow had the right patrons and played golf at the right clubs, and wound up in the big office on the 35th floor instead.

What got me thinking about this a couple of weeks ago was a line in Condoleeza Rice's testimony to the 9/11 commission:

"If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something... I would have expected to be asked to do it."

That line just crystallized her amazingly passive tone throughout her testimony, and also the tone of Bush's press conference that week.

For some reason, it brought to mind one of the most atrocious magazine articles I've ever read, one so bad that I still remember it fifteen years later, although it also had some insight. This was a New York Times magazine article, I think entitled simply CEO, from the previous era of the CEO cult, back in the late 1980s. In this magazine article, a writer followed the CEO of Avon Products around for several days, breathlessly chronicling all the tough choices and key decisions he had to make, much as Bob Woodward chronicles presidents. And yet what the article revealed, inadvertently, was that it is perfectly easy to sit at the top of a large organization, make dozens of "decisions" a day, and yet never really grapple with the issues the company faced. The Avon CEO's day consisted of meetings at which teams from various parts of the company essentially pitched him for authorization to spend more money or take more time on some project. The emotional high point of these heady days would come after lunch, when the CEO would ask his secretary to check the stock price, and if it was down, he would swear and slam his office door.

The article later became a book, which I didn't read, but I remember a review in which Joseph Nocera pointed out that neither the CEO nor the author seemed to show any recognition that "the company was a dog," since the business of selling cosmetics door-to-door didn't have much future. For all the decisions, the CEO was as helpless to change his company as the worst-paid, part-time salesperson.

I didn't have any interest in the cult of the CEO, and I've never worked in an organization so big that I didn't know the head of it, but it was still a revelation to me that someone could reach the top of an organization and yet be so completely passive and imprisoned within the assumptions of that organization's culture. There's all the bluster of leadership, all the "I'm the one who has to make the tough calls," all obsession with the stock price as if it's an impeccable barometer of success, but underlying it all, just drift, not mastery.

When I tried to write about this before, I struggled with the fact that Bush is not always such a passive figure. He drove the debate on tax cuts, he made the Iraq war happen despite every reason for it not to, he's forced Congress to act on issues such as Medicare prescription drugs that had been locked in partisan paralysis for years. But, as Kevin makes clear, the bad CEO isn't a lump. He has some subjects that he works hard at. He has some obsessions and pet projects. He has a constituency he favors, such as one division of the company to the expense of the others. And he's vulnerable to management consultants who spin grandiose solutions without any thought to the long-term consequences. In this light, Bob Woodward's description of the Pentagon's Douglas Feith, whose role in making the war happen seems larger than earlier realized, is revealing: “Feith has a high-pitched, insistent voice,” he writes. “He is articulate and has mastered the language of the management consultant, short, pithy sayings, what he called ‘big thoughts.’" (quoted by Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker.)

Understanding Bush as "the bad CEO" will have a positive effect on Democrats' language. Take, for example, a pet peeve of mine: The use of the phrase "failure of diplomacy" to describe Bush's pre- and post-war behavior, the phrase Daschle used. I think "failure of diplomacy" concedes far too much. The good CEO might be guilty of failures of diplomacy, of having a vision for change and pushing hard. The strong leader breaks some china, as they say. Diplomacy is namby-pamby and superficial. But if you think of Bush as the Bad CEO, you don't hesitate to call it what it is: a failure of leadership. Leaders persuade others, and leaders also absorb information and other points of view. They change direction in order to find the smoothest path to their goals. They react quickly to changes, to get ahead of them.

Kerry improved on Daschle a bit, charging Bush with "a failure of diplomacy, a failure of foreign policy, a failure of creative leadership." Still, there seems to be a hesitation about critiquing Bush as a leader -- it's the last of three items, it has to have an adjective, "creative," attached.

It takes a long time to realize that your strong, decisive leader is all bluster. But once people realize it, it's all over.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 6, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

You and Kevin have both nailed it. I'm really hoping that the Kerry campaign and Dems in general are able to push this point home.

I have always been surprised by people who say that Bush showed such leadership after 9/11. He waged war against Afghanistan... and then left it to fall to pieces.

At no point did he ever lead the country to do the things that were necessary. He pushed for the war on terrorism to be understood as "long term" and requiring great commitment. Based on that premise, the budget for the armed forces and for law enforcement was dramatically increased. Meanwhile he pushed to hugely lower taxes.

What ever happened to the notion that leaders are the kind of people who get you to see the long-term positives of making a difficult decision? Leaders persuade. Leaders take responsibility. I have never seen these traits from this president, including after 9/11. I have seen very little more than bluster and lack of substance.

Posted by: Jack | May 6, 2004 6:03:05 PM

yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

the bad ceo meme has been around since the 2000 campaign, but only in the context of his actual business failures. connecting it his time in office is the key to victory.

Posted by: asdf | May 6, 2004 7:58:51 PM

Everyone has worked for a dork. And that dork's boss is usually an even bigger dork. Experiencing office America is a great way to lose faith in the boss-as-leader, so by all means the Democrats should remind voters that Bush is as clueless, and in the same way, as the clown who comes up with bright ideas for everyone else in the organization to implement.

Posted by: Kyle | May 6, 2004 9:44:20 PM

There are some huge failures of leadership and organization in the current administration. The challenge is to make those failures transparent to the American Public in an election year. I am not sure that the "Bad CEO" line does that. How does this translate into an election theme?

Posted by: Rich | May 6, 2004 11:55:58 PM

I think the bad CEO meme could apply to presidential politics in the sense that America's stock price is what's at stake. Unfortunately, capitalizing (no pun intended) on that theme needn't involve anything more than suggesting a name change (Bush to Kerry). See R.J. Reynolds/Altria, for example. Moreover, trash talking a company's stock price leaves the new CEO with an artifically depressed price. Just because voters can be shown to act like shareholders doesn't mean they should be encouraged to act that way.

Posted by: meetthenewboss | May 7, 2004 8:49:48 AM

The bad CEO theme is right on target, and it does fit with how Bush seems to view himself (as good CEO, of course, delegator). The one element that has struck me as odd, but fits with the disengaged, out of touch perspective, is that Bush almost never fires people. Good CEOs delegate, to be sure, but they hold people accountable. The only major figure fired has been O'Neill, who was a bit of a loose cannon too often for the administration, and, of course, Cheney did the dirty work there (and O'Neill has gotten some payback with his book). But, no one was fired as a result of 9/11, not Tenet, not Mueller, not Ashcroft, not Condi, etc. Rod Paige was not fired, or even rebuked, for calling the teachers unions "terrorists," which is an astonishing comment (not to mention a general sense of ineptitude by nearly all parties about Paige and his Dept of Ed on implementing Bush's supposed signature program, NCLB). Last month the President was "disappointed" Ashcroft continued the trend of de-classifying memos for blatantly political purposes re Gorelick, but no more comes of that. I get the feeling this is the flip side of the Bush personality of nicknames and supposed charm - he can't fire people. We'll see what happens with Rumsfeld, but it seems like the same dynamic is in play (though someone smartly wrote that firing Rumsfeld would lead to confirmation hearings for a new Defense Sec and more bad press focus from that).

Post Enron, we now ask CEOs to sign off personally, with possible criminal implications, on their firm's books. The election should and hopefully will be largely a referendum on Bush's leadership.

Posted by: paul teske | May 7, 2004 12:23:24 PM

This is why the Dilbert comic strip has had such a popular following. Every corporate drone can relate to Dilbert's clueless boss.

Posted by: Mike Doyle | May 7, 2004 5:55:44 PM

I think of Bush as the Potempkin president. He and his handlers have lots of ideas about what makes someone a leader based on the latest leadership fads (lots of CEO books have been written about this) yet it misses the crux of leadership. They picked "bold, strong and decisive" for their leadership traits and then they use all kinds of photo-ops to brand Bush with their advertising.

Bush likes to make decisions because he doesn't worry much about the consequences and he likes to make decisions that take the biggest risk - the biggest gamble that can either pay off enormously or totally bankrupt the house. And I don't think he really cares which is which because he has always gotten bailed out.

His handlers like it because he is very malleble and as long as they play to his "gut" he will go along with whatever they suggest. They just make sure his choices range from "bad choice A" to "bad choice B", and never provide him something that would not benefit their goals. So he decides. And he believes he is a bold, strong and decisive leader. They let him believe that because it plays very well for them.

Posted by: Mary | May 12, 2004 1:30:45 AM

There a risk to this rhetoric, in that the Bushies can just say John Kerry has never been in an executive position in his life, and, if he were to become an executive, he would just flip-flop his way through the job.So, I think it would suffice for the Democratic ticket to just get in Bushs face and show him no respect, which is what you were getting at in your commentary about Daschles failure of diplomacy remark.The best aspect of the bad CEO approach (aside from the easiness of getting many, many people to identify with a corrupt, lying boss, as a previous commenter mentioned) is that it would be very easy to append an attack on the media by calling them the bad CEOs PR department.

Posted by: JD | May 12, 2004 9:19:12 PM

There a risk to this rhetoric, in that the Bushies can just say John Kerry has never been in an executive position in his life, and, if he were to become an executive, he would just flip-flop his way through the job.So, I think it would suffice for the Democratic ticket to just get in Bushs face and show him no respect, which is what you were getting at in your commentary about Daschles failure of diplomacy remark.The best aspect of the bad CEO approach (aside from the easiness of getting many, many people to identify with a corrupt, lying boss, as a previous commenter mentioned) is that it would be very easy to append an attack on the media by calling them the bad CEOs PR department.

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안녕하십니까?
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개발되었다고 하는군요.
많은 지식인들이 그 원리를 알아보고 영어의 혁명이
일어났다고들 한답니다.

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이 내용게시를 원하지 않으시면 다시는 올리지 않겠습니다..
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Posted by: 특급정보 | Sep 14, 2005 7:55:26 AM

안녕하십니까?
100배 이상 영어학습이 빨라지고 쉬워지는 원리가
개발되었다고 하는군요.
많은 지식인들이 그 원리를 알아보고 영어의 혁명이
일어났다고들 한답니다.
저도 그 원리를 습득해 보고 혼자 알기에 너무 아까워서
이렇게 소식 전합니다.
사이트 www.007.or.kr 에서 그냥 견본을 다운받아
살펴보시면 영어에 대한 확실한 자신감이 생기실 겁니다.


p.s 운영자님 저에게 메일로 홈페이지 주소를 알려주시면
이 내용게시를 원하지 않으시면 즉시 삭제후
다시는 올리지 않겠습니다..
죄송합니다. 건강하십시요.
비번: 1232

Posted by: 이훈 | Oct 12, 2005 7:14:25 AM