Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A cure for Mad Boss Syndrome


Scott Rosenberg's Links & Comment

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With the controversy over John Bolton's nomination to become Bush's ambassador to the U.N., it's been possible for the administration's supporters to paint Bolton's opponents as whiners. The Democrats, it seems, don't like Bolton because he's, you know, tough. Raises his voice. Pushes around his inferiors. Well, ask the Republicans, what's wrong with that? Shouldn't we want a tough guy at the U.N.? We're the strongest nation on the planet! Why should we care if one of our diplomats is a hardass? We're supposed to reject an appointment because the guy yells?

Of course, if you've been following the story, you may understand that the issue here isn't one of bad manners -- it's about bad management and bad judgment. Bolton isn't just a tough guy; he's a tough guy who apparently used his ire to bludgeon intelligence reports into the shape he sought. It's one thing to push around your subordinates; it's quite another to push around the information on which the lives of Americans and American troops depend. The reason Bolton's nomination strikes so many observers, including me, as so profoundly wrong is that it's precisely Bolton's management style -- one shared by, and endorsed by, the Vice President's office -- that led to the debacle of American intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.

In the "whatever happened to those WMD?" game, the Bush team has been pretty successful at shrugging off blame or diverting it at the intelligence community: Darn that CIA! How could they have misled us so badly? But Bolton's confirmation hearings stand as a blunt reminder of what really happened: Bush's men hammered the intelligence "community", raged at their troops, threw fits and tantrums and delivered threats and ultimatums until the information flowing up from the field matched the fantasy their ideology dictated. When that fantasy collided with the reality on the ground in Iraq -- look, ma, no WMD after all! -- these men turned around and said, well, we acted on the best information we had at the time. First they pushed around their subordinates; then they blamed their subordinates. Classy! And, sadly, genuinely dangerous in the realm of national security, which is why the intelligence field has a strong tradition of trying to keep its reports insulated from the political tide -- one more tradition, like the Senate filibuster, that the pseudo-conservatives of the Bush cadres are casually tossing overboard.

The Bolton saga strikes a chord with the American public because we've all worked with, and most of us have worked for, a Bolton or two in our time, and we know how it goes: Mad Boss shouts at the top of his (it's usually, though not always, a male phenomenon) lungs until the things people say to him match the things he wants to hear.

I first encountered the world of Mad Bosses in various jobs I held as a college kid and later as a fledgling journalist. I assumed that this was the way of the world -- that somehow the role of Being In Charge carried with it a dose of generic rage, and that all bosses would inevitably, at some point, explode and abuse their employees. The macho culture of old-school American newsrooms certainly spawned its share of Mad Bosses, and I'd have my run-ins with them. For me, one of the grand things about leaving the comfortable nest of the newsroom and helping found a company was doing my small part to shape a different, more civilized workplace culture, in which people treated each other -- superior and subordinate alike -- as colleagues, not kicking posts.

I came to realize that Mad Bossism was not an inevitability; it is, in fact, an anachronism. It flows less from power than from frustration at powerlessness. The boss explodes because the world won't bend to his will -- and it's supposed to! What good is being boss if it won't?

This has given me a tad more empathy for the bulging-veined, red-faced bosses of my past, though I'm firm in my determination never to work anywhere near the type again. The truth is, it's no longer as easy as it used to be to get away with this kind of behavior: Joe or Jane Subordinate is going to be blogging every last twitch of Mad Boss's tantrums. Just look at what's happened to the director of Los Alamos National Labs, G. Peter Nanos. If the postings about him on a largely anonymous Los Alamos insiders' blog are true, he's a classic Mad Boss. Yet the scientists and engineers who work for him, having reached their limit, aren't giving up; they've used the Web to shame him. Mad Boss may have met his match in Mad Blogger.

I can't say I'm sad to see the field so leveled. The Web is criticized, and often rightly so, for the incivility of so much of its dialogue. But here's one instance in which it can actually help counter the sort of offline incivility that for too long has been simply a given of the workplace.

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