Thursday, September 13, 2012

Organizations Can Succeed Without Great Leadership

Former Firedoglake and Open Left writer Ian Welsh has a very thoughtful piece on the Obama/Bush administrations' failing strategy of assassinating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, arguing that these are organizations with lots of members who believe in the mission of the group, and thus don't really require some brilliant or charismatic leader to keep them going:
Leadership isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be, IF you have a vibrant organization people believe in.  New people step up, and they’re competent enough.  Genius leadership is very rare, and a good organization doesn’t need it, though it’s welcome when it exists.  As long as the organization knows what it’s supposed to do (kick Americans out of Afghanistan) and everyone’s motivated to do that, leadership doesn’t need to be especially great, but it will be generally competent, because the people in the organization will make it so.
Even better is his commentary on how this applies to the corrupt institutions of the United States:
American leaders are obsessed with leadership because they lead organizations where no one believes in the organization’s goals.  Or rather, they lead organizations where everyone knows the leadership doesn’t believe in its ostensible goals.  Schools are lead by people who hate teachers and want to privatize schools to make profit.  The US is lead by men who don’t believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  Police are lead by men who think their job is to protect the few and beat down the many, not to protect and serve.  Corporations  make fancy mission statements and talk about valuing employees and customers, but they just want to make a buck and will fuck anyone, employee or customer, below the c-suite.  They don’t have a “mission” (making money is not a mission, it’s a hunger if it’s all you want to do), they are parasites and they know it.
I think he's on to something, that this is a form of projection, the common fallacy where one assumes others think or are motivated by the same things as yourself.  American institutions, particular in government are stymied by both the necessity of careerist caution (see: Shirley Sherrod) and the true lack of honest information about what the organization is supposed to be doing.  Even to the extent there are people with initiative who are willing to act in the absence of instruction from above, they don't know what behaviours would be rewarded and the consequences of perceived failure (even just having a right wing clod decide to make you a target) are severe.

As I mentioned in the comments at Ian's place, this feature of the Taliban is actually well understood in military doctrine.  The Germans brought it to prominence in WW2 with a concept they called "Auftragstaktik."  It explicitly demands, as a matter of military strategy that each leader give his subordinates the main mission and leave as much detail on how to implement to them.  In fact, it even allowed for cases of disobeying orders so long as this was done to facilitate the ultimate mission of the organization.  Subordinates could make errors and not be punished.  All of this is highly ironic for the German Army in its role as the military of a fascist dictatorship, but the doctrine long predates the Nazis and to my knowledge had nothing to do with them (Hitler was a notorious micromanager much to his own disadvantage).

I don't know if the Taliban consciously models themselves on this basis, but it is probably a more or less automatic necessity of running an insurgent organization that must operate in constant fear of overwhelming force being brought down anywhere they are detected.  There just isn't room to micromanage.

None of this is to get too far into a tactical or strategic debate over how to fight the war in Afghanistan, but rather to highlight the efficiency costs of corrupt institutions and how the basic utilitarian logic of society can crumble as it becomes increasingly focused on the whims of the overlords rather than representing small d democratic impulses.  Increasingly American institutions don't function because they can't, and this is costing lives when it comes to fighting organizations not so encumbered.

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