Measures of leadership: Reflections on Robert S. McNamara
Sunday 22 January 2012 8:45AM
Professor Mark Dodgson from the University of Queensland Business School, talks about the career and personality of Robert Strange McNamara, who also served as US Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Robyn Williams: What is it about brilliant politicians? I mean intellectually brilliant like Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter or Kevin Rudd, Angela Merkel, William Gladstone, Carmen Lawrence and the man who needs only one name: Jefferson.
Yes, they were and are very, very clever, but why aren’t they also straightforwardly successful as politicians? Is it because you also need judgement, decisiveness and even the common touch, contact with the real world? Is it a handicap to know too much, to see too many possibilities and to be like Jimmy Carter, US President and nuclear engineer, seeing too many ways of dealing with a problem?
I left out one famous name. Here to supply it is Professor Mark Dodgson from the University of Queensland.
Mark Dodgson: In previous Ockham’s Razors I’ve talked about the heroic inventors, Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Edison. Today I’m going to talk about an anti-hero, an extraordinarily influential man whose approach to life and the way things should be done strangles the freedom and initiative necessary for creativity and innovation. I’m going to talk about him because his deluded philosophy about measurement and performance continues to be powerful and is insidiously infusing present-day working life and distorting the worthwhile intentions of organizations and the people who work in them.
My anti-hero is Robert Strange McNamara, and yes that was his middle name. By any measure McNamara, who was born in 1916 and died in 2009, was an exceptional man. He was President of Ford Motor Company, US Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during the Vietnamese War, and President of the World Bank. Many of his achievements were admirable. He might well have saved Ford from bankruptcy, and certainly made cars safer. He improved the efficiency of military procurement and helped the world out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the World Bank he did much to improve infrastructure, health and food production in developing nations. Yet as his biographer Deborah Shapley says: “Few Americans of the twentieth century have been so admired – and so despised”.
Few indeed have had to deal with the enormity of the consequences of their decisions, with the deaths of 58,000 of his countrymen and perhaps, staggeringly, of over 1 million Vietnamese. Few have had to live with the sight of a man burning himself to death outside his office as a protest at his decisions.
Robert McNamara did an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1939, and he joined the Faculty two years later. In the army during the Second World War he became involved in planning military logistics, and his expertise in statistical control led to his recruitment, along with a number of his colleagues – known collectively as the Whiz Kids – to Ford in 1946.
The most common epithet used for McNamara is ‘brilliant’. In David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest about the outstanding talent surrounding John Kennedy, McNamara was considered the brightest. The term sometimes had a pejorative connotation. Barry Goldwater called him an: ‘IBM machine on legs’. Robert Lacey’s book on Ford says: “The programmer who wired up the circuits beneath the slicked-down cranium of Robert S. McNamara might have missed a connection or two when he reached the sense of humour zone.” At a funeral of a friend he was seen sorting out his notes for a speech for the following day.
McNamara was a demanding boss who did not tolerate fools gladly. His approach to management and policy was totally focused on efficiency, defined by applying cost-benefit analysis. He said: “Numbers are a language to me”, and Deborah Shapley reports: “Nobody else used numbers the way McNamara did. They symbolized his supposedly detached, objective approach to policy. He embodied the school of statistics-based management…”
His approach was one of control. Shapley says “Ford’s management controls made McNamara’s language of numbers universal in the firm.” This caused problems for designers and creative people. “He once ordered a new car by specifying the weight, dimensions, proposed price, and so on. But what do you want the car to be? The designers asked. How should it feel? He had no answer”.
Shortly after McNamara became President of Ford, he was invited to become John Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. From being one of the world’s best paid executives, with a salary of $800,000 – an astronomical sum in 1960 – he moved to a salary of $25,000. His involvement in the profound events of the time has been extensively analyzed, as has his role in the escalation of the Vietnam war, which is to be my focus. Or, more specifically, the approach he took to controlling the war will be my focus.
According to a scathing book about McNamara’s methods, H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, he ignored the gathering and analyzing of information based on military experience and diplomatic expertise because it was too subjective.
McMaster writes that McNamara viewed the war as another business problem that, he assumed, would ultimately succumb to his reasoned judgement and others’ rational calculations. He and his assistants thought that they could predict with great precision what amount of force applied in Vietnam would achieve the results they desired and they believed they could control that force from half way around the world.
He would report with optimism that the body count for a couple of months was enemy 7,000, his side 3,000. His main statistical control was the ratio of enemy killed in relation to the number of friendly deaths. McMaster reports how McNamara, his notebook full of statistics, assures a reporter in Vietnam “every quantitative measure we have shows that we are winning this war”.
He was, of course, tragically measuring the wrong things and using the wrong assumptions. David Halberstam’s book about Vietnam The Quagmire says the statistics used were very much the statistics that wanted to be heard. And they were misleading. He put great store, for example, on bombing fixed installations, when the Viet Cong were a mobile force for whom infrastructure was of secondary importance.
Halberstam, that most erudite and astute observer, praises McNamara’s phenomenal intellect and energy, but reports one of his own most fervent admirers admitting that he is interested in everything “but men and ideas”. The war, notes Halberstam, unfortunately was little else.
McNamara could be callous and despicable. Deborah Shapley tells how the military came to loathe him when it became clear that just at the time he was spouting statistics and sending more troops to Vietnam, he had lost confidence in the US’s ability to win the war. He sent soldiers to go and fight for a cause he no longer believed in.
McNamara’s character was at its finest when he began to reflect on his decisions and mistakes. He published a book on Vietnam in 1995, which has amongst the bravest, and most honest and chilling lines imaginable. He writes: “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and values of the nation…. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong.”
The reason I think it is important to reflect on McNamara’s approach today is because it seems to me that it is increasingly being applied where it should not be used. Managing factories by statistical control is essential. Managing places of learning and culture by such measures is abhorrent and destructive. McNamara said in 1962 that: “running the Department of Defense is not different from running Ford Motor Company or the Catholic Church… Once you get to a certain scale, it’s all the same”. He believed any type of organization could be run by common techniques, the same system of management. It was only later, after harsh experiences, he began to appreciate the importance of differences in culture, history, values and traditions.
The imposition of the wrong kinds of performance metrics is incredibly distorting. The difficult challenges being faced by the UK’s National Health Service, for example, derive in large part because it is driven by targets rather than by outcomes. Its performance is determined and incentivized by a top down insistence on things that can be measured, such as waiting times for operations, not by patients getting well. Measuring arts and cultural organizations by numbers of visitors can alter the balance between popularity and experimentation. Academics constantly confronted by endless evaluations by students, and questionable research assessment exercises, direct their energies to meeting myopic and petty performance indicators, not to ensuring people learn from them and writing things that are profound and useful.
The great management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “What gets measured gets managed” and this has become a mantra of management consulting companies worldwide. Three unfortunate corollaries result. First, what is measured is prioritized. Second, organizational efforts move towards those that are most easily quantified. Third, what can’t be measured is believed to be unimportant. Another all too evident consequence is that despite caveats and provisos often put on measures by their creators, they cannot control their inappropriate use.
The measurement fetish causes all sorts of problems for companies when they try and apply the techniques for measuring the stocks and flows of goods and finance to the intangible issues of knowledge and initiative. Many companies, for example, continually struggle to establish appropriate budgets and performance metrics for research and development. As a major input to R&D performance is creativity and its outputs are learning and improved organizational skills and responsiveness, no wonder they have difficulty measuring them because these are fundamentally intangible. Most activities in firms need to be measured so they can be controlled, but not all of them. Sometimes the most important things cannot be measured.
Management by numbers abrogates responsibilities for, and delegates the importance of, leadership. It transfers power and influence to the wrong people. In the Army, McNamara learned that statistical information was power. The Statistical Control men were like inspector generals, before which higher-ranking officers trembled. We’d all be more comfortable, I think, with wars being conducted by soldiers, engineering projects run by engineers, and medical decisions made by clinicians, rather than bean counters.
When asked whether he might, as head of Defense, visit troops called up during the Berlin crisis of 1961, McNamara replied that he could serve the nation better by spending the same time at his desk. To paraphrase David Halberstam, organizational life is all about people and ideas. Hiding from this fact by immersion in numbers is to avoid real leadership.
Underlying McNamara’s approach is a relegation in decision-making of anything that is emotional or subjective. Rationality, reason and logic are critically important for organizational life – but rationality celebrates the conventional, is bounded by what is known, and is tied to established institutions and power structures. It seldom generates radical new ideas and innovations. It is also hopeless in highly complex situations, seen in the debacle of centralized planning in the Soviet Union. It completely ignores the messiness, inconsistency and contradictions of people and ideas. McNamara later in life came to realize - especially after reflecting on Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis – that “rationality will not save us”.
So, what kind of leadership should we be looking for in creative and innovative organizations? The answer lies with the antithesis of McNamara’s approach: men and women who use numbers but are not governed by them. Innovative organizations have leaders with judgement, experience, intuition and understanding, who encourage experimenting, trying out new ideas, and tolerating failure. Their approach is one of stewardship and guidance rather than control and a
preparedness to ask the big, profound questions such as what is our purpose as an organization, and addressing the much more challenging issues of promoting a culture that supports people and their ideas. This kind of leadership is not easy, but it produces the most successful organizations. And it avoids the awful, numbing realization that when you came to the most important decisions of your life you weren’t wrong, terribly wrong.
Robyn Williams: A message worth reflecting on at the beginning of this difficult year. Professor Mark Dodgson is at the Business School, University of Queensland. Next week we go to Melbourne for a possible scandal, just possible, about water. Ken Davidson tells the tale. I’m Robyn Williams.
Professor Mark Dodgson
University of Queensland, Business School, Brisbane
Innovation: A Very Short Introduction
Mark Dodgson and David Gann
Oxford University Press