Monday, June 21, 2004

Team Bush : Leadership Lessons from the Bush White House. By Donald F. Kettl,

The author’s main objective in this book is to illustrate what makes president Bush an effective political executive. His principle focus is on Bush’s leadership style that revolves around forming an effective team, dealing with broad strategies and leaving the details to the team: “ Bush has carefully honed a style, based on building an effective team, to make strong decisions” (1). The author argues that Bush’s style (developed at Harvard and utilized in his business career) has made him a very effective political executive and has contributed to his success in office (in Austin and Washington).
The author begins with an examination of the president’s life at Harvard and his early business career. This is where Bush honed his leadership skills and made contacts that would come to his aid when running for office. The author then proceeds to evaluate Bush as an executive. From his crafting of an agenda, and building a team, to providing rules and regulations for the interaction of the team: “I hope that the American people realize that a good executive is one that understands how to recruit people and how to delegate, how to align authority and responsibility, how to hold people accountable for results and how to build a team of people” (43)
The author also looks at other aspects of good leadership. Apart from having a strong team, the author argues that a leader needs to have a strong and narrow, the discipline to stick to a message, an ability to build coalitions and the strength to use ones popularity and strengths to ensure that the agenda succeeds.
A number of interesting issues are raised in the book. Amongst the most interesting is Bush’s prowess at playing the expectations game and how the “missunderestimation” of Bush, by his opponents, has served as one of his most potent tools. As the author argues: “Perhaps the most consistent thing about George W. Bush’s career is that he has consistently exceeded expectations (169)….Bush has made playing the expectations game into an art form. He started with expectations very low indeed. One republican pollster, Whit Ayres, was pleased with that. “It makes it all the easier for president Bush to succeed.” (170) The significance of playing the expectations game is best summarized by Kettl’s apt expression: “Leadership always revolves around expectations. Success depends on beating them.” (171)
Another uncanny and quite admirable quality of the Bush administration is its ability to stick an agenda. As the author correctly points out, in these days of twenty four hour television and talking heads, it becomes very difficult for the president to have his agenda remain front and center. However, Bush and his team have been very effective at this, may it be during the campaign: “But Bush’s relentless refocus on the basic themes helped the story (whether he had used drugs) fizzle and avoided continued questions that could have unhinged the Bush campaign” (86) or through the numerous ‘scandals’ (corporate scandal, uranium assertion in the state of the union address, the outing of a CIA operative) that have threatened to undo the president’s agenda: “The drumbeat of corporate scandals had threatened to squeeze the administration’s agenda – and especially the Iraq initiative – out of the public debate. By defusing the scandals (by promising to investigate them fully) and repeating the foreign policy theme, the administration got the debate back on track and refocused attention on the message it preferred.” (94)
Bush’s ability to create contacts and rely on those contacts for his political career is also quite venerable. As is his knack for building a team out of people he already knows and trusts (which enables him to hit the ground running): “Bush’s reliance on team members he already knew and trusted gave Team Bush a running start and ensured few snags.” (46)
However, a number of negative issues were raised as I read the book. The fact that the author failed to mention that he worked as an advisor to the Bush administration (from 2002-2003 with the office of Budget and Management), is quite perplexing. In the interest of full disclosure the author should have informed – even if only cursory reference to – the reader of his stint in the OMB. This would enable the reader to better evaluate the objectivity of the author and probably explain the overwhelmingly positive view of the Bush that the author has (though I do commend him for his discussion of the seven leadership traps). Moreover, the mere fact that he worked in the white house would probably explain the dim view of the Clinton white house that the author seems to have. One needs only look at the comparison he makes between Bush and Clinton (29-30) and in numerous other pages to see that he does not necessarily have a positive view of Clinton. Though he may have been genuinely trying to compare the two, it would have been better to compare two or more presidents.
Furthermore had he looked at past president’s, especially Ronald Reagan, he would have seen very many similarities with the style Bush has adopted. From his quick start, short and focused agenda, strong team, coalition building, relations with the media and stage craft. All these were introduced during the Reagan administration (Gergen 165-193). In addition, according to the author, Bush had studied the past five administrations, it would not be a stretch to think that he borrowed heavily from the effective first term of Reagan, not only in style, but substance (read tax cuts, defense spending): “ Bush knew from his study of previous presidencies that many of his predecessors started off balance and struggled to regain their footing. He worked hard to develop and project a confident stride, in style and substance, because he knew that first impressions last.” (75)
One the most interesting issues that I found in this book was the author’s discussion of the Iraq initiative. Upon reading the book a number of questions were raised. Did Iraq pose a real terrorist threat, or was it conveniently placed in the category after September 11th 2001: “They (the administration) connected the Iraqi leader to the spread of terrorism, claimed that he was linked to the September 11 attacks, and argued that he had to go.” (70) It is worth noting that the Bush administration had wanted to get rid of Saddam even prior to 9/11 (27), did 9/11 provide the perfect cover? Another question stems from the fact that Iraq became a major administration issue at the same time that the corporate scandals were biting hard and the 2002 elections were around the corner:
"Research then (January 2002) and throughout the year, was clear. The president’s personal popularity was high because of the way he dealt with September 11. If voters focused on terrorism and foreign policy, Bus would remain popular and his fellow republicans would do well in the midterm congressional elections. On the other hand, if Enron, WorldCom, big business failures, and the plunging stock market dominate public opinion, Bush would be in a heap of trouble, which would likely result in the republican loss of seats in both the House and the Senate in the midterm elections. For most of the year, Rove (political adviser to Bush) kept the
spotlight on foreign policy. The president’s foreign policy team had long since
concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that they constituted a
genuine threat. (92)"
The question becomes did the administration “wag the dog”?
This book gives great insight into the workings of the Bush administration, it also gives some strategies for budding politicians, especially team building, agenda control, coalition building and image control. I believe that this book has some very good advice for the public sector as well as, private industry.


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