The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing 4: Rumsfeld the Manager

For almost three decades, conservatives in both parties relentlessly pushed the idea that America should be governed as if it was a corporation where every activity was means-tested by cost/benefit analysis, departments were made efficient by being made smaller, costs were kept down in the traditional way (layoffs followed by underpaying and overworking those who were left), and any agency or appropriation unrelated to the military or helping business prosper was considered a waste of time and money that should be cut to the bone if it couldn’t be eliminated altogether. The Doctrine of Social/Economic Darwinism held that in the corporate world efficiency was rewarded and inefficiency punished, money was never wasted, management had to be effective, and results had to be positive or the “free market” would operate to weed out those companies who were not. It was a message whose simplicity proved to be enormously attractive to the general public.


Because the whole construct, as I argued in a series called “The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, with support here), was mythology. Corporations in fact often – even usually – reward ass-kissing over efficiency, waste enormous amounts of money in executive perks and bad ideas, produce shoddy and over-priced goods, are almost always satisfied with the appearance of success rather than the reality, have an unswerving faith in PR and advertising as replacements for quality, and have cultures which foster management teams and executives who are so far removed from the real world, so arrogant, and so used to blind obedience that they will deny problems and difficulties right up to the point where the company implodes in its own lies. (See Enron, WorldCom, the S&L’s, and too many other examples to enumerate here.)

If none of that sounds familiar, you haven’t been paying attention. Every standard corporate idea/belief/fad/illusion/technique/management style has been on display in the Bush Administration for the past 6 years. Not surprising given that virtually the whole admin was staffed by ex-corporate executives, lawyers, PR flacks, and lobbyists. We have been given the chance to find out just what “running govt like a corporation” looks like, and it’s not pretty.

Maybe that’s why we don’t hear that mantra all that much any more. The Republicans who used to run – and win – on a platform centered around making govt perform like a business have abandoned that approach wholesale as “corporate-style governing” has come to be synonymous with corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence. Various members of the Bush Admin illustrate the usual corporate management types that are familiar from business literature:

  • Bush: the “son” who walks into the Head Office without either experience or knowledge of the business and proceeds to destroy it through ignorance, arrogance, and greed;
  • Cheney: the “faux-military leader” who cracks out orders like a drill sergeant, punishes dissenters, and demands unthinking, unswerving loyalty while insisting even as the ship sinks that running for the lifeboats shows an unacceptable level of “negativity”;
  • Rice: the “negotiator” whose chief talent lies in her ability to suck up to the Boss and parlay her sheer ignorance into an image of thoughtful open-mindedness ideal for arbitrating disagreements between rival factions;
  • Rove: the “genius” whose relative intelligence although not all that great makes him stand out in this confederacy of dunces, and whose unscrupulous, conscienceless behaviour makes him much admired by the others as “somebody who knows how to get things done”.

These are all well-known prototypes of corporate managers, forged in the incubator-like hothouse of cut-throat corporate politics, who, like rare tropical fish developed specifically for aquariums, could never survive outside their corporate bubble because they have no actual skills valuable in the real world. Michael Moore used to go around asking CEO’s to do some simple thing that was central to their company’s product (for instance, he once challenged the Chairman of IBM to format a CD; he couldn’t do it) and discovered that most of them were helpless, totally ignorant of the product they were supposed to be in charge of making.

Which brings us, in a roundabout but significant way, to Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.

In today’s WaPo, Andrew Cockburn – who just finished a biography of Rumsfeld that’s coming out this week – examines Rummy’s managerial style and finds that for all the conventional wisdom about his “competence”, the reality is: he sucked.

Defending Donald H. Rumsfeld in the face of a furious critique by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Vice President Cheney paid tribute last week to the former defense secretary’s “superb job in managing the Pentagon under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”

Cheney’s is not a unique view. Even many of Rumsfeld’s detractors tend to assume that he was an effective manager, however disastrous his decisions on Iraq may have been. Throughout his Pentagon tenure, he carried the useful reputation, bolstered by his well-advertised spell as a college wrestler and his experience as a corporate CEO, of being a tough executive who brooked no nonsense from trembling subordinates to get the job done.


But an examination of his record reveals that, in fact, Rumsfeld was a very poor manager. Despite his gruff theatrics, he shirked the task of leadership at the Defense Department, failing to restrain the services in their pursuit of parochial agendas. Though he spewed ideas and injunctions daily, he routinely neglected to follow them up. Pledged to the “transformation” of the cold war military establishment in 2001, he left it six years later almost entirely untransformed, save for the wreckage wrought by the Iraqi adventure. Even in concept, his program for “transformation” amounted to little more than notions articulated as bumper stickers, and poorly thought out ones at that.

This description would tend to identify Rumsfeld as yet another standard corporate manager-type: the “Big Picture” guy with meta-ideas – most of them half-formed and unrealistic – and no interest in or ability for the detail work necessary to make them happen. That guy is a “delegator”: he leaves the details to underlings that he can blame when his unrealistic ideas prove to be unrealistic.

The “Big Picture Guy” is also recognized by his short attention span. He tends to spin out “big ideas” in gross lots. Upper execs and boards of directors are always dazzled by the very magnitude of his idea output and fooled into thinking he’s an innovator. In fact, he can rarely remember any given idea from one week to the next and follow-up is almost non-existent. Thus:

The notion that Rumsfeld at least exercised tight control of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy is encapsulated in his well-known use of “snowflakes,” short memos of injunction, query or complaint that he dictated and distributed in manic quantities. True, junior officials may have quaked at the sight of a Rumsfeld emissary approaching with the dreaded missive in hand. As often as not the note reflected some querulous Rumsfeld whim, such as the July 2001 complaint, notorious among his personal staff, regarding the width of the lemon slices served with the secretary’s iced tea. Over time, subordinates came to realize that their fearsome chief seldom followed up on these memos. Once written (and there were often more than 100 a day) they were often forgotten.

The missives usually set a date, sometimes within a day, for confirmation that the assigned task had been completed. “In the beginning,” said one formerly high-ranking individual who routinely received scores of snowflakes, “I’d work late to get the job done and respond by the set time. Then I started letting it slide for a week, and no one seemed to notice.” Eventually he stopped responding altogether, and still heard nothing.

The fact that Rumsfeld earned his reputation as a successful CEO from a single tenure at a single company suggests that the work responsible for the turnaround at Searle & Co, a global pharmaceutical firm, probably wasn’t his. He failed miserably in his other two stints as a CEO, being fired from one company and resigning from the second to return to govt.

Government is in many ways a lot less forgiving than the private sector to a screw-up. Real people get hurt and they get hurt right out in public where everyone can see them. Rumsfeld’s hopeless incompetence could be covered up in the private sector, and was by companies worried about their reputations. At the top of the Washington food chain, however, there are a lot fewer places to hide.

Rumsfeld is a classic example of why corporate types should probably NEVER be put in positions of power in the govt.

They’re just not up to it.

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