Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ego and Metrics Gone Awry

It's not good karma to take pot shots at someone after they pass away, but I started this blog several months ago and never finished it, so I find at least some relief in that. The core message in this post: Beware the leader too comfortable in the role, too adept at eluding the grasp of humility.

Robert McNamara died last Monday. For those interested in studying and learning about leadership and management, independent of industry or purpose, he's a character worth knowing. My father, brother, uncle, and cousin all served in the McNamara War; my father at the most senior levels of the Air Force. And, of course, in my own Air Force professional education, we studied his style, strategies, and outcomes in-depth. Bless him and the hearts of his left behind family, his life offers poignant and painful lessons in leadership that we should all note.

He had all the right academic credentials, corporate pedigree... and haircut. He was a data wonk before it was fashionable. He came into his role as Secretary of Defense with an ego only rivaled in modern times by characters such as Patton and MacArthur. He created a dream team at the Pentagon and set out to change the stodgy US military. To that end, he had remarkable vision and management skills, and his thinking and fingerprints remain to this day in the DoD. But... his great successes fed his great ego and the egos of his aides and staff. Like an engine of pride consuming itself for fuel, it was only a matter of time before it all came apart. Ironically, for truly great leaders, their successes lead to successively greater connections to gratitude and humility. They see that, were it not for the grace of God and subtle random events to their favor, their great successes would have been great disasters.

In McNamara's War, number crunching, organizational theory, "systems engineering", academic credentials, and money were all trumped by the heart and will of a culture not inclined to change from the influence of a superpower consumed by its own self-righteousness. One of McNamara's metrics-gone-wrong legacies: The Daily Body Count, mandatorily reported up-channel from the lowest level troops in the field.  Imagine being a 20-year old platoon leader, pausing after a jungle battle to count bodies--the enemy's and your own troops--and coldly radioing them into headquarters to ensure that the numbers made it to the next morning's briefing for the Secretary of Defense.  As history would prove, those metrics were no indicator of success.  As they say, not all things can be measured and not all things measurable should be measured.  McNamara's ego convinced him that his pedigree could out-think, out-manage, and out-measure the lowly peasant Communists, but such was not the case.

In public settings, McNamara held firm to his decisions and ego until his dying day...but, I have to believe that privately, he knew better.  The best leaders walk the thin line between confidence and uncertainty... between egotism and humility. You want a leader who shows evidence of balancing both and occasionally falling to both sides of the line-- too much confidence and too much humility-- because all of those behaviors are appropriate at the right time and right place.

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