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Ego and Metrics Gone Awry

July 8, 2009
by Dale Sanders
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It's not good karma to take pot shots at someone after they pass away, but I started this blog several months ago and never finished it, so I find at least some relief in that. The core message in this post: Beware the leader too comfortable in the role, too adept at eluding the grasp of humility.

Robert McNamara died last Monday. For those interested in studying and learning about leadership and management, independent of industry or purpose, he's a character worth knowing. My father, brother, uncle, and cousin all served in the McNamara War; my father at the most senior levels of the Air Force. And, of course, in my own Air Force professional education, we studied his style, strategies, and outcomes in-depth. Bless him and the hearts of his left behind family, his life offers poignant and painful lessons in leadership that we should all note.

He had all the right academic credentials, corporate pedigree... and haircut. He was a data wonk before it was fashionable. He came into his role as Secretary of Defense with an ego only rivaled in modern times by characters such as Patton and MacArthur. He created a dream team at the Pentagon and set out to change the stodgy US military. To that end, he had remarkable vision and management skills, and his thinking and fingerprints remain to this day in the DoD. But... his great successes fed his great ego and the egos of his aides and staff. Like an engine of pride consuming itself for fuel, it was only a matter of time before it all came apart. Ironically, for truly great leaders, their successes lead to successively greater connections to gratitude and humility. They see that, were it not for the grace of God and subtle random events to their favor, their great successes would have been great disasters.

In McNamara's War, number crunching, organizational theory, "systems engineering", academic credentials, and money were all trumped by the heart and will of a culture not inclined to change from the influence of a superpower consumed by its own self-righteousness. One of McNamara's metrics-gone-wrong legacies: The Daily Body Count, mandatorily reported up-channel from the lowest level troops in the field. Can you imagine being a 20-year old platoon leader, pausing after a jungle battle to count bodies (the enemy's and your own troops) and coldly radioing them into headquarters to ensure that the numbers made it to the next morning's briefing for the Pentagon? Do you really think those metrics were accurate or reflected anything meaningful about success or failure? McNamara's ego convinced him that his pedigree could out-think, out-manage, and out-measure the lowly peasant Communists. But, as they say, not all things can be measured and not all things measurable should be measured.

The best leaders walk the thin line between confidence and uncertainty... between egotism and humility. You want a leader who shows evidence of falling to both sides of the line because all of those behaviors are appropriate at the right time and right place.

Beware the leader too comfortable in the role, too adept at eluding the grasp of humility.



Dale, I think many will find this post difficult to read. The truth can be painful indeed and this may hit too close to home for someespecially those who see evidence of their own leadership style in your words. Thanks for having the courage to post this.

I couldn't agree more Dale, thanks for the post. A more recent example of a very similar individual is Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld also brought a colossal ego and truly stunning intellect to the pentagon as well as a complete lack of understanding of human nature on the local, ethnic and national levels. Unfortunately he also brought a love and mastery of bureacracy that tolerated no dissent.

More generally, I have long been fascinated by stories of genius gone awry. Whether McNamara, Rumsfeld, Napoleon, Jeffrey Skilling or a host of others, I have often wondered how people so smart could get things so wrong. Sometimes it is ideology, sometimes it is hubris, sometimes it is bad luck, sometimes all three.

Where this becomes relevant to HIT is that some of the smartest people on the planet are working day and night to promote their vision for the future of healthcare in the U.S. Some are playing more fairly than others. I can only hope that more of them will do a little soul-searching, practice their listening skills and remember that it is not about being right, but about doing right - doing right by patients and their families.

Dale, thanks for an interesting post. I found the body count measure to be a very clear example of a measure that misses the linkage to a goal.

All humans are intelligent. Many of them are even smarter that "us Americans." For example, comparing universal healthcare to Canada is a colossal mistake. There are many countries that do it well. I used computerized medical records in Australia more than 10 years ago. The US is far far behind technologically in medicine. Sadly, it seems many people are trying to get their hands in the pot of gold here rather than do a better job.

Organizations are like supertankers, hard to change direction drastically (which can be a good or bad thing). But the leader is the only person who can turn the wheel left or right, initiating that change. If the leader is intransigent in his position despite obvious signs things are off course, only extreme, emergency measures can save the day (impeachment, coup, revolution, etc). This is why we must be so careful about who we place into positions of power, the higher up the pyramid, the less chance improperly yielded power can be checked.

That's why organizations pay people like Tim Tolan and Gwen Darling money to MAKE SURE they get high-level hiring decisions correct, too much damage can be done from the top.