Wednesday, November 3, 2010
More Similar than Different
I’ve had a great opportunity this week to catch up on some of my Kindle reading (aka book reading). In addition to pulp fiction, mystery and romance novels I have done some non-fiction reading. Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” provides an insider’s narrative on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. Tim Gunn’s “Gunn’s Golden Rules” is a breezy romp, has some gossip and Gunn’s opinions and recommendations on manners in 2010. As I mused on these very different titles, subjects and authors, I realized that they were more similar than different.
Viewed through Woodward’s reporting – meticulously researched and impressively objective – the reader is introduced to Barack Obama, his process and how he works with the military. It’s a fascinating account that at its core is about how a novice civilian President must manage and ultimately direct a firmly established war machine that is accustomed to having its way. Over the course of his first 18 months in office there are repeated examples of the President asking for counsel and options and not receiving them…or more accurately receiving options that aren’t really options. (“Sir, what you really meant to ask for is…”) Vice President Biden emerges heroic, intelligent and passionate in his approach – adjectives I would not have previously associated with him. In this prism one can also understand better how President Bush’s approach easily was further corrupted and expanded.
My reading of the accounts (none of which has been disputed in the months that the book has been available) is that the senior military officers have acted in a way that borders on treason. At the very least they join their civilian colleagues behaving with gross insubordination. How President Obama both stood up to the military and ultimately caved is an extraordinary lesson in management, human behavior and what’s wrong with entrenched bureaucracy of any kind. My takeaway is we must remain true to our principles until the cost of those principles puts everything else at risk. President Obama could have stayed true to his principles but would have had to replace the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the Joint Chief, 2 of the 4 Service Chiefs and the leading commanders in Afghanistan and in Iraq. That probably would not have been received too well in the US and global communities, though I’m not sure that they all would have resigned en mass as indicated in the book because many in that group have shown that they don’t hold to their principles that rigorously.
Tim Gunn stays true to his principles and has no trouble sharing his opinions or feelings. Largely known as the “guru” on “Project Runway” he approaches life in many ways from a Victorian sense of propriety He has adapted much of this sense of right and wrong to a current day sensibility. His is an uplifting and “American” story – overcoming a debilitating stutter, attempting suicide and rising to become the grand, elegant, beloved and adored teacher and guide to aspiring fashion designers. He says what he thinks and does so in a way that is respectful, funny and often inspiring.
Business people often have similar challenges. Unions, while staying resolute for their members can make life miserable for Management. Shareholders similarly can make demands that rankle the working class. Management must weave a careful and deliberate path between the needs of the people who do the work and the obligations of those who fund the operation while delivering goods and services that meet the expectation of their customer. For me this is where it’s fun to take those challenges and chart a course that ultimately delivers results for each constituency.
I realized that much of what Tim Gunn aspires to is what we actually wanted from our business leaders and from the President, whomever is serving. It is proper and expected that those serving the President should provide him with the accurate data that he demanded and is entitled to. Like it or not – it is his decision as Commander in Chief. Congress’s role is authorizing War. Of course they didn’t actually do that for either Afghanistan or Iraq – they authorized the “use of force” and the media has called it war ever since. These are technically military conflicts. The point is that once Congress has done its authorization and continues to fund the effort no matter what we call it but the tactics are left to the Commander in Chief. It is totally disrespectful and shows very poor manners to ignore direct orders. The outcome might not be any different: it’s the lack of respect of the office and the process that is most galling. Tim Gunn would say “Shame on you! Were you raised in a cave by wolves?” Of course I think that if more of Gunn’s Golden Rules were followed we’d not only have a more civil result, but likely even more fashionable!