American voters, or at least the Electoral College members, have placed their faith in the seasoned acumen of the businessman (and the occasional business woman). They celebrate the return of business-minded professionals to positions of power, thinking that this will improve our country’s economic performance and, through the obvious means of social osmosis, naturally better the lives of its citizens.
Take Rex Tillerson, for example, the Exxon Mobile veteran who served as its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from 2006 to 2016. His globetrotting on behalf of one of the planet’s most successful companies in arguably the world’s most lucrative industry surely means that he has mastered the nuances of diplomacy and understands the Earth’s people. What better preparation for negotiating peace and protecting security could their be than having mastered the art of deal-making? Sure, Tillerson’s objectives have always been framed in terms of dollars and cents and not in terms of lives and societal well-being. But how different could working toward longer-term, less quantifiable objectives really be?
Or take Trump’s recent selection of tough guy Rudy Giuliani as his cyber security advisor. Never mind that Giuliani’s own website is terribly hackable, hosted on an outdated operating system and running old and long-unpatched versions of software. Rudy responded to one of the greatest tragedies our country has ever seen by being present rather than cowering in fear in a corner of his office, so this makes him a leader. And certainly a leader can make up for their demonstrated lack of knowledge and skill just through their ability to be present and do whatever a leader does.
Scott Pruitt is an inspired pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. An active climate-change opponent who insists that the world’s scientists disagree over the impact and extent of man-made climate change, as if any issue meets with unanimity, Pruitt has worked as a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. Who better to carry out the nominal mission of the Environment Protection Agency than such a devoted friend of fossil fuels who wants the EPA to stop protecting the environment?
To head the Department of Energy, an organization for which 60% of its budget goes to designing and protecting nuclear weaponry, Trump selected former Texas governor Rick Perry, another fossil fuel man. Perry once claimed in a debate that he wanted to eliminate the department for which he has now been picked to lead. This will surely test his management mettle. Imagine the struggle of leading an organization you have long wished to destroy! Thank goodness Mr. Perry has business sense.
I grew up with a father who worked as an Electrical Engineer. He’d come home from work and complain how his bosses would ask him to do things with no budget and an unrealistic time frame because they hadn’t a clue what was actually involved and, worse, didn’t care. They were task masters interested only in an outcome that made them look good. They didn’t care about the technical complexities and, worse, would stare at him blankly and smugly if he started explaining them. They would milk the stereotype of the uncommunicative engineer who speaks only in tics and grunts, blaming him for breakdowns in communication, as if it were possible to speak poetry to coral and inspire an emotional response.
Perhaps biased by his experiences, I encountered the same style of management in my earliest professional assignments (and I still do today). People who didn’t understand the technical issues and truthfully had no interest in learning them would issue me tasks to complete. At first, I resented this, particularly when it meant that I had to work throughout the Christmas holidays to complete a project whose aims were incompletely and ambiguously defined, with ridiculously insufficient resources to accomplish quality work. The “just get ‘er done” mentality of management really irked me, as it does today. Eventually, though, I made a game of it and saw that I could use their lack of interest in my craft to my advantage. They would marvel at my wunderkind nature, even if all I ended up doing amounted to turning a device off and then back on again. Management’s willful ignorance, reinforced by their sense of superiority at not having to stoop to my level of gearheadedness, was both maddening and personally advantageous.
But management like this never, ever improved a deliverable. It always compromised the quality of both the process and the product. It always introduced the inefficiencies of having to explain and to justify and to defend to people who entirely lacked the capacity and interest to comprehend. But I was only the nuts-and-bolts guy, and I had to answer to the business types who managed me. I was Dilbert.
We’re all Dilberts now.
In my experience, the best managers are the ones who thoroughly understand what they have been asked to manage. You don’t select your cyber security expert just because she knows business and businesses need to have secure information systems. You don’t hire an engineering team lead based on his experience managing budgets. The laws of logic and physics don’t obey market dynamics. Not every problem is a business problem, even if every problem affects business.
It would be terribly imprudent to select a football coach who has spent a career managing a baseball team simply because he knows the camaraderie of sport. Just being on a field isn’t enough. You select an expert in the X’s and O’s of football who can solve specific in-game problems on his feet. Unfortunately, I’ve had mostly baseball managers leading my football teams, which perhaps makes me just unlucky.
Or perhaps, noting Trump’s repeated picks of Lasorda’s over Lombardi’s, I’m actually more of an indicator.