Thursday, January 07, 2010
Professor of management Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who is a smart guy, notices an all-too-rare apology in institutional America in Jerry Levin's admission that his acquisition (as CEO of Time-Warner) of America Online might have been the worst strategic deal in the history of the universe. Sonnenfeld inveighs against the far more frequent practice of blaming somebody -- anybody -- else for one's own failures, and does not shy from noticing that habit in the Obama administration.
Jerry Levin reminds us that our leaders need to stop blaming TARP, Sarbanes-Oxley, Y2K, Congress, the other political party, the other side of the world, El Niño, global warming, their competitors, their boards, their predecessors and their parents. The painter Robert Motherwell once advised that “one wonderful thing about creativity is that … there’s always the anguish, the pleasurable challenge.” Leaders should welcome the problems before them and take ownership, since it is those problems that give them a job.
True. The only thing I would add is that many of these people who blame others for their own errors or incompetence are, sadly, sincere in their finger-pointing. They actually believe that some other person, thing, law, condition, circumstance, or institution is responsible, not them. The "sincerely" guiltless people bother me the most, because it means that they do not examine themselves honestly. It is as if they are unable to see themselves in anything approximating the same light in which others see them.
It is tempting to think that these sincerely guiltless people are confined to the ego-maniacal leadership class, but they are not. We are surrounded by them, and they include employees in every organization and at every rank. The question is, are there more of these people today because of some change in our culture, or are we only noticing them because of the more intensive media spotlight on institutional errors and crimes since, roughly, Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?
The more I see of this administration and the congressional majority, the more I think the following quote applies:
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." - C.S. Lewis
It also bugs me when the media harped on the Wall Street vs. Main Street thing with the whole mortgage related crisis. Any borrower who thinks he/she should buy a house (at inflated prices to boot) with zero to five or ten percent down - or similarly excessive use of consumer credit card financing to buy big screen TVs and the like - also needs to accept individual, not just institutional responsibility for the collapse of this fantasy.
There has been a forced shift in our culture from the traditional American value of individual responsibility to collective responsibility. The media spotlight is related, I think, to the fact that the media culture is naturally collectivist.
I think it is a basic tension in our culture due to the fact that both polarities have flaws that prevent them from being completely embraced for all time. As such, there is and will be a pull back toward the other direction whenever one side of the equation becomes too dominant. We can all feel the currents tugging now back toward individual responsibility.
In the collectivist model no one who accepts the collectivist vision is to blame and no one is a hero. There are villains (the individualists) but their main function is buttress the idea that if you are in the group you are not guilty, you are good, don't worry (move along).
There are some striking ironies in the collectivist model. First, there are no leaders. But of course there are. So somewhere in the collectivist engine there is an individual who is just a little more equal than all the others. Collectivist systems are sometimes the most authoritarian.
Second, despite the fact that no one is responsible individually, any time something awful happens, there is a rush to establish blame, to point the finger at someone. You can see this in the way that in the event of say an airplane crash in Russia, you hear almost immediately high government officials, who know basically nothing about airplanes and little of the facts at hand, claiming that the problem is such and such. End of uncertainty. Our tradition of getting the answer is quite different though. What we hear is, "we are looking at the facts and we'll get back to you next year with our excruciatingly studied conclusions."
The idea that lingers for me is that while people as a group can solve problems, the best problem solvers are those who strongly believe in individual responsibility. They are the most ingenious, the most inventive, the most creative, and the most courageous. Even in group problem solving, the most efficient model in my experience is one where you have a group of individuals, a group of people who think for themselves, and see the value of cooperation, and are not threatened by the good ideas of other individuals.
I suspect that people who gravitate toward the collectivist model do not like problems, and this may be related to the fact that they don't solve them very well, and do not want the risk of failing. Can we agree that the latest collectivist problem solving exercise, the health care legislation, is a problem not well solved? It is truly a mess.
The tide has turned. The damage was immense.
TH, via Patterico, a video apology right up your alley. Some of the later lyrics are a bit NSFW.
"It is tempting to think that these sincerely guiltless people are confined to the ego-maniacal leadership class, but they are not. We are surrounded by them, and they include employees in every organization and at every rank."
Totally agree, I'm surrounded by these people. Anywhere I point to I see them. Yes including you over there! Oh wait, that's a mirror. Okay, not him but everybody else.
I grew up a typical spoiled boomer but as I have gone through life and hopefully learned a little I have become more and more fixated on the idea that a key dividing line is between people who take responsibility for what they do and people whose first reaction to crisis is to point the finger of blame at anyone but themselves. What angers me about the current administration more than any ideological disagreement is the sense that the President has a sign on his desk that says "The buck passes here".
Learning to take responsibility is hard, and many or most people cannot do it. A common example would be the bad teacher who blames the students for their poor results.
And the lazy student who blames the teacher.
Generally, the less successful a person is in life, the more they blame others.
This dovetails with why I think being willing to put your money where your mouth is works on a moral level. It's easy to make self-serving prediction about the future, and then forget about it or minimize it when things don't turn out that way and other people are hurt. Paying out on a bet is a nearly-automatic way of accepting responsibility.