Effective leadership in business and politics requires going to W.A.R. to achieve successful solutions: Working on the right problem. Asking the right questions. Removing barriers that impede progress toward the ultimate goal. Sometimes that W.A.R. must start with your own management team.
It might seem obvious that President Bush is in charge of what goes on in the White House, but it is more obvious that he has some crippling weaknesses in his management team. The negative outcry over the sale of management of six U.S. ports by a British firm to Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates, is the latest distraction to test the president’s leadership style, and potentially weaken his fragile political capital. Bush’s second term has already been marked by a number of public relations missteps, including federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court and, though hugely overblown, the handling of Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident.
The latest news on the ports deal – that the president was not made aware of the sale until other administration officials had already approved it – has empowered Bush’s political enemies and media critics who revel in labeling the administration as out of touch and secretive. It is clear that those at the top levels of the president’s administration present barriers to his ability to lead the nation and effectively communicate his policy agenda to Congress and the public. Bush must remove these barriers immediately to ensure a successful second term.
The president and his leadership team have generally worked on the right economic problems during his two terms. Early in his first term, Bush established a commission to study the Social Security system and to recommend alternatives to restructure the dysfunctional and soon insolvent program. Most recently, the president delivered a State of the Union address that was strong on national defense, but weak and misguided on domestic policy initiatives. The address included plans for yet another commission to propose solutions to the Social Security system.
The president spent the bulk of last year explaining the irrefutable fiscal crisis Social Security faces, yet many in Congress refused to consider his optional personal retirement accounts solution, while others even denied the fiscal crisis exists. The main reason the president’s effort to restructure Social Security failed last year was not because his solution was flawed. It was because the solution was poorly communicated to the public, which provided knock-kneed members of Congress the political cover they needed to avoid discussing the issue. The poor communications strategy, coupled with liberals’ over-bloated and inaccurate attacks, caused the optional personal retirement accounts solution to never gain momentum.
Bush also made overhauling the income tax code a centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda, pushed through tax-rate cuts that have caused historic economic gains and appointed a commission to analyze our tax system and propose changes fair and simple for all citizens. The president is working on the right economic problems, but the advice he receives on communicating his solutions is jeopardizing his plans from the start.
I fully understand the difficulty of replacing loyal team members who are not getting the job done. I have done it many times in my career. A shake-up of the current administration’s management team may cause a few bruised egos within the White House, but would likely be seen as a sign of strength across the country. Installation of a new or revamped advisory team would indicate that the president knows he has internal problems, and is willing to fix them. Every president since Richard Nixon has reconfigured his closest group of advisors at least once.
Granted, the president is leading this nation amidst a storm not of his own making. He did not invite the global war on terrorism or constant threats of terrorism on our own soil, and he is essentially charged with mapping the course of foreign policy and national security for subsequent administrations. The president must realize, however, that some members of his team are failing him.
Mr. President, you’re in charge. A management shake-up is needed to re-energize your domestic agenda, provide you with fresh voices and solutions and send a message to Congress and the public that you are willing to lead outside and inside the White House. There is still time for your domestic policy agenda to succeed, but not if you wait any longer to make some management changes.