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Posted on Sun, Apr. 11, 2004

Who's `out of the loop'?

In Bush White House, leadership style works against communication

From Dr. Charles M. Kelly of Tega Cay, a retired management consultant and author of "The Destructive Achiever: Power and Ethics in the American Corporation":

In her April 8 testimony, Condoleezza Rice repeatedly blamed structural problems as the likely causes of our failure to connect-the-dots of intelligence that might have prevented 9-11.

My experience with corporations suggests that problems of upward and cross-unit communications usually are more a matter of leadership philosophy and style than of the bureaucracy. Still, top managements almost always blame the bureaucracy and the performance of lower-level executives when serious communication failures hurt the organization.

For example, an organization having serious communication problems may try to solve them by decentralizing. If done well, the decentralization will usually improve conditions -- for six months, or maybe a year. Then, the original problems surface again and the organization is back where it started. Then it re-centralizes, and conditions again get better, for a while.

The communication problems were never a matter of structure; they were a result of leadership style. Each reorganization simply rearranged relationships and everyone was aware of management's new, but temporary, focus on the process. And the improvements lasted just long enough for the old leadership style to reassert its influence.

Compare the leadership styles of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Any mistakes the Clinton administration may have made in fighting terrorism were likely due to judgments resulting from the faulty analysis of extensive data. Clinton's passion for ideas and information from all sources is legendary. As the record indicates, he sought inputs from all sources -- from all levels and functions of government, and even from those who disagreed with him.

On the other hand, growing evidence (e.g., books by Richard Clarke, John Dean, Paul O'Neill) suggests that the Bush administration came into office with a predetermined agenda, and chose to pursue that agenda almost to the exclusion of competing ideas. They went through the motions of a comprehensive approach to dealing with terrorism, but their leadership style didn't fit their rhetoric, or even their published documents.

A corporation's "statement of mission" or "corporate philosophy" always sounds like it came out of a management textbook. Problem is: Published documents, and even public statements of top executives, are almost irrelevant compared to leadership philosophy and style -- as evidenced by their actual behaviors.

In much the same way, a government administration will make sure that it officially presents a textbook description of how it is covering all the issues that are expected in governing. And, of course, the Bush administration had a comprehensive plan for dealing with terrorism. But its actions demonstrated to other levels and functions of government what their real priorities were, and who was to determine how they would be implemented.

Dick Cheney's comment that Richard Clarke was "not in the loop" is suggestive of the insular nature of his openness to upward communication. And when Rice said that none of Clarke's recommendations would have prevented 9-11, she was referring to his specific proposals to deal with terrorism. She failed to acknowledge Clarke's constant requests for higher-level meetings, which could have demonstrated top-level commitment to improving upward- and cross-communications.

When you have an ideologically driven administration with predetermined priorities, you automatically have top-down and fractured communication -- and a terrible problem-solving environment.

For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer's, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board. Contact Charles Kelly at

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