Friday, December 01, 2006

Rumsfeld's adult supervision

I'm not sure when "Take charge" becomes "Take responsibility." But I think it's when things are going badly.

I started preparing a presentation on asserting yourself, on what to do when things go badly, as a Donald Rumsfeld memo surfaced over the weekend. Rumsfeld advised the president on Iraq, where things are indeed going badly. What better real-world example of asserting yourself than bearing bad news to your boss?

The news of the memo was that before last month's election Rumsfeld was talking about pulling out troops. The tone of the memo was that Iraq needed adult supervision. Rumsfeld described a troop withdrawal as "taking our hand off the bicycle seat."

Iraqis, Rumsfeld said, "have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country." We take charge, the Iraqis must take responsibility. It's as if Iraq is a child learning to lace her shoes. Maybe that's the right metaphor.

Children appreciate when parents take charge. They feel comfortable with limits. They're relieved that some things in life they don't have to worry about. Leadership isn't all that different. Everyone on a productive team knows their roles. If things are going badly, the best course is to address the situation immediately and head-on.

By that yardstick Rumsfeld sent his memo way too late. So, was this a textbook example of assertive behavior? The literature suggests four steps toward addressing your concerns and asking for help:

State the problem. With experience in the corporate world, Rumsfeld got right to the point. The memo begins: “U.S. forces have adjusted, over time, from major combat operations to counterterrorism, to counterinsurgency, to dealing with death squads and sectarian violence.”

Tell your feelings. "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough," Rumsfeld wrote. That barely touches on what must have been on Rumsfeld's mind: He'll find it hard to rally the Pentagon if every option for victory is not on the table.

Specify a solution. The memo put 15 options on the table. Some of them were clearly tough-love measures, such as no more reconstruction assistance where there is violence. "Stop rewarding bad behavior," Rumsfeld wrote. Others were face-saving, as in redefining victory. "Go minimalist," he said. The memo doesn't give much of a sense what course the Secretary of Defense wanted the president to take.

Describe the consequences. Again, Rumsfeld came up short of presenting the dangers of staying the course. He merely listed the current path as one of a half-dozen "less attractive options." The others included moving more troops to Baghdad and increasing U.S. forces "substantially."

So, this memo came somewhat short of telling truth to power. An effective request would be delivered calmly and repeatedly until the message gets across. What happened with this memo is that Rumsfeld resigned two days later. Coincidence? You be the judge.

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