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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • August 21, 2009
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The Leadership Flaws of Don Rumsfeld 

Concentrating as it does mostly on his two stints as Secretary of Defense (first under Gerald Ford, then almost 25 years later, under George W Bush) Bradley Graham’s new biography of Don Rumsfeld, ‘By His Own Rules’, is less a biography of one man than it is an exceptionally detailed, occasionally leaden-footed, but ultimately revealing portrait of the difficulties inherent in managing highly complex organizations.Augmented by two shorter sections on Rumsfeld’s business career, particularly his stints as CEO of GE Searle and General Instrument Corporation, ‘By His Own Rules’ suffers a from little too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’: there are many labored laundry-lists of Rumsfeld’s Rules, memos, comments and observations, and not enough fly-on-the-wall un-editorialized description – at times, it feels like Graham doesn’t trust the reader to draw the right conclusion from the evidence he presents, and so ends up spoon-feeding us obvious and derivative tropes when he would have been best letting the picture he paints speak for itself.

By His Own RulesNonetheless, ‘By His Own Rules’ is a gripping and highly informative book, and I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who is battling to manage complexity: there are few organizations as complex as the US Department of Defense, and Graham meticulously and entertainingly illustrates the many issues involved in trying to come to grips with a sprawling, hidebound, conservative bureaucracy that is resistant to change and yet in charge of the defense of the planet’s one remaining global superpower.

There are many lessons in this sprawling book, but here are the three that I took away as the most striking:

1. An obsessive pursuit of efficiency will eventually lead to ineffectiveness.
Rumsfeld came to his second stint as Secretary of Defense committed to what he called ‘Transformation’ – essentially, a pogrom to root out inefficiency in the military. His obsessive commitment to the transformation agenda blinded him to the reality that the efficiencies he mandated (and the micromanaging that was necessary to enforce them) was materially hobbling the military’s ability to be effective, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. Thinking ‘meta’ has its limits.
From the evidence of Graham’s biography at least, there is no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld has a fine brain. He not only analyses information well, he looks for – and often finds – the underlying and recurring patterns in data that allows for a consideration of the higher-level issues involved. So for example, when early in his tenure he is trying to get the information required for a quadrennial review of his department and he is confronted with a Joint Chiefs of Staff that appear to Rumsfeld to be intransigent and ‘silo-d’ in their service functions, he not only finds a way to get the information he is then currently looking for elsewhere, he also redesigns the entire interaction between his office and the Joint Chiefs to avoid a repetition of the clash in the future.

This ‘meta-thinking’ is important to Rumsfeld (he regularly fires off memos to people on ‘how to think about’ many of the key issues of the day, regardless of whether the issue is technically within his brief or his advice has been sought by the recipient), and is a required skill for any leader. But for Rumsfeld, it eventually becomes a barrier to effective decision-making – there are simply too many issues, too much to be decided and implemented, for him to afford the time to muse on the higher issues. And yet he does, leading eventually to a stagnation of his Transformation agenda.

3. Leadership requires trust.
The single most dominant and recurring theme in Graham’s book is the lack of trust Rumsfeld engendered during his second term as ‘SecDef’ – from his direct reports, from military leaders, from his peers managing other departments in the US Government, from Congress, and eventually, from the public. Equally clear is the fact that up until the final phase of his tenure he garnered respect – from the very same people.

‘By His Own Rules’ shows clearly – tragically – that while management can run on respect alone, leadership requires trust. In the end, by the reading of Graham’s book, Donald Rumsfeld left a legacy as a great manager, but a failed leader.


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