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Leadership and Ethics

OK, a few highly placed lawyers trumpeted "don't ask/don't tell" as a "solution" to discrimination against gays in the military. Real managers foresaw a problem. They already knew organizations which tolerate (much less encourage) poor information flow functioned worse and worse over time. An effective leader "walks the talk," meaning that words fit actions, and vice versa. Hypocrisy doesn't work in the long run. Here's a link to a military site about poor (and good) leadership. Not surprisingly, academic studies are finding the slogan counterproductive--it has eroded morale and even increased harassment of perceived homosexuals, defeating its avowed purpose.

The real leadership issue may be accountability more than foresight. Machiavelli advocated lying as a ruler's prerogative. He wrote after practicing what he preached--and fled to Spain when exiled. Machiavelli remained abroad and out of the power he sought for the rest of his life. Some considered the Borgias his disciples--most died violently and young, because deception only works in the short run. Lawyers would have been less surprised at "don't ask/don't tell's" failure if they remembered legal liability for "willful blindness." Omissions can be punishable lies. Quite simply, the law, like morals and ethics, encourages truthtelling, with very limited exceptions. Of course, the spiritual and mental health consequences of silence deserve consideration, as does the prospect of retaliation. Yet the individual decision remains--whether to withdraw or speak out.

Are good managers born or made? The debate can be as useful as discussions about whether leadership is an art or a science. Probably the answer is both and neither, or that the right person must be found for the job. Evolution and maturity matter. The paterfamilias model ("just do what I say") might have worked in the Roman era, and it may still work for parents of preteenagers, or high school basketball coaches or even drill sergeants. It just doesn't work well applied blindly to thinking modern adults. The Internet generation, used to information flows, heightens the issue, even if the historical record is similar. Demands for blind obedience just about never work well, especially not when "not what I do" gets added. Many high school coaches have always washed out in the pros. That's why the military has always encouraged an "open door" policy--it keeps first level supervisors attuned. Of course, obedience remains attractive, for the easy delineation or power displays. Ultimate responsibility, though, includes accepting consequences, not just blaming subordinates.

Some leadership techniques can be learned through experience over time. Remember, however, the government employees most concerned about the positive qualities of leadership (military officers) are also subjected to up-or-out promotion policies. The MSPB has not chosen that mode of trimming government deadwood. Thus, managers exist who blindly follow decades-old cliches ("don't learn to use computers because typing is the job of a secretary"). While such managers are probably on a decades-long psychological as well as intellectual siesta, the current system may encourage complaisance (resting on one's previous laurels, if not outright mismanagement) through giving supervisors the equivalent of tenure. The end result? Bad managers taking advantage of the worst idiosyncrasies of the civil service system keep personnel officers busy and in business.