Ego and leadership

In oppressive regimes, critics and journalists have always used myth and analogy to hide their true meaning from the authorities. (Some writers, like L. Frank Baum, became so adept at this dissembling that no-one is really sure what they meant, whom they were attacking, or for what ). This morning’s Washington Post contains a reflective article that readers might carelessly interpret in this way, so I will try herewith to protect the RBC community from making fools of ourselves.

Pay attention: The Air Florida crash in 1982 was an airplane, and it flew (or rather not-flew), into a bridge in the snow. It was not an army, and it did not march into a hostile desert full of sandstorms and internecine wars. 78 people died, not 780,000. The captain who didn’t listen to the copilot’s warning that something was amiss was just an airline pilot, not the president of a great nation. The guy who said “anti-ice” as they ran through the checklist watching the snow through the windshield was not General Shinseki, and the captain who said “off” as the checklist proceeded to the next item was not the Secretary of Defense, and he didn’t say to leave off the body and vehicle armor, nor to leave half the troops at home. His copilot was not God, and neither a malcontent treasonous peacenik defeatist Democrat nor a malcontent treasonous defeatist paleocon, just a guy who though it was more important at the time to protect the captain’s ego as a decider (or afraid to be a troublemaker) than to respond to reality. It was ice that covered the engine probes and silenced critical intelligence channels about conditions, not lost memos and edited intel summaries. The cockpit crew tried to deice by loitering in the superwarm, superhumid exhaust of another airplane, which of course made matters worse; they did not fire the army and the police. And Del Quentin Wilber is not an egotistical, arch, pundit, just an ink-stained newsroom wretch who gathers objective facts and writes them down for us.

Got it?

The point of the article is that the main reason for the crash, the pilot’s authoritarian unwillingness to listen to subordinates, was intrinsic to a certain outdated sociological model of command, and that in some work environments like airplane cockpits and operating rooms, the last twenty-five years have seen enormous, deliberate, efforts to improve communication (especially communication up) and change that sociology. For example:

At the Nebraska Medical Center, surgical teams have begun to use checklists before each operation …. [whose] last item raised by the surgeon is meant to embolden team members to raise concerns, and it is the same one many airline pilots reiterate to their crews: “If anybody sees any red flags, something they are uncomfortable with, bring it to my attention.”

There is not a word in the piece about any government offices or wings or rings, oval or west or E. Anyone thinking this article is about anything other than exactly what it says, airplanes and surgery, is going completely out of bounds and showing symptoms of doing his own thinking and learning without authorization. When the MSM learns to use irony, indirection, and analogy, and gets permission to do so, we will tell you, and we will provide the correct, approved interpretations for you to apply. That is all.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.