Awarding an "A" grade before the final exam

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 December 2003



Allio, R.J. (2003), "Awarding an "A" grade before the final exam", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 31 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

Awarding an "A" grade before the final exam

Robert J. AllioS&L Contributing Editor Robert J. Allio is a principal of Allio Associates, located in Providence, RI ( A veteran corporate planner and strategist, his most recent book is Seven Faces of Leadership (Xlibris, 2002).

The Leadership Genius of George W. BushCarolyn B.Thompson and James W. WarePublished by John Wiley, 2003

Thompson and Ware have undertaken the audacious challenge of evaluating the leadership of our current national president in mid-term. Their metric is a ten-point list of key leadership practices: identifying core values, having a vision, building trust, hiring the best, leaving them alone so they can do their jobs, building alliances, being disciplined, communicating well, using good intuition, and getting results. The model has merit, although there's not much in their ten key practices that we've not read about before.

The authors fail to properly apply their model, unfortunately, preferring to indulge in adulation of George W. Bush. They cite such weak evidence as his performance as a father to his daughters and as a Little League coach as proof of leadership, and they fail to identify any flaws in his decision-making as President. Their imaginative but laugh-provoking comparison of Bush to Moses ("bringing 600,000 slaves out of bondage into nationhood") may strain the credulity of even an ardent Bushite. The authors award George W. their accolades as a "leadership genius", scoring him a near perfect ten on every key practice and declaring that he excels in "common sense" as well.

Although no one has the necessary historical perspective yet to grade this president, here's my assessment of George W's leadership in a few key management practices:

  • Core values. Bush espouses compassion. Yet the monies allocated by the US for aid to developing countries are a miserly 0.1 percent of GNP, far less than the UN target of 0.7 percent, and the lowest among all the developed countries of the world. He ran for office as "The Education President", but upgrading the US workforce of the future doesn't seem to be a priority, or if it is, he hasn't articulated his action plan.

  • Vision. Does his proposed domestic economic policy seem like "common sense?" By pushing tax cuts to stimulate investment, Bush is creating trillion-dollar deficits that will stretch as far as the eye can see. Even Alan Greenspan is worried. Foreign policy is equally muddled. Bush has difficulty differentiating between Osama Bin Laden and Iraq, North Korea and Iran, Palestine and Israel, or Fidel Castro and the Cuban people. So what is his world vision for the US? Global moral/economic imperialism? International vigilantism? Crusader for democracy? Antiterrorist SWAT team? Power broker?

  • Building trust. Bush preaches free trade, yet panders to protectionists by signing a bill that provides massive subsidies for the farm industry and imposing new tariffs to protect the US steel industry. He claims to cherish the environment, yet authorizes more snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, pushes drilling for oil in Alaska, refuses to sign the Kyoto protocol (which seeks to limit the emission of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations), and is dismantling a variety of additional environmental regulations. He recently became embroiled in a controversy over whether his team hyped the danger Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" posed to the US in order to make the case for war.

  • Hire the best people. Lobbyist Harvey Pitt as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, followed by the even less-qualified Bill Donaldson (who brings to the position a record of professional mediocrity and a challenged character)? John Snow as Treasury Secretary (whose qualifications seem limited to having run a railroad)? Henry Kissinger (who fortunately declined the assignment, citing conflicts with his lucrative consulting practice) to head the investigation of American vulnerability to terrorism? Tom Ridge for Department of Homeland Security? Gail Norton, another former lobbyist, as Secretary of the Interior? The Bush recruiting record of hiring "foxes to guard the chicken coop" doesn't inspire confidence.

  • Building alliances. Is Bush establishing strong relationships with partners in Europe and elsewhere? Only Great Britain, Italy and Australia lined up on the US side in the current conflict with the Iraqis – yet Bush now blames the UK for the uranium in Africa gaffe. The US is shamelessly in arrears in its obligations to the UN, owing more than $800 million in back dues. And the Bush administration has unilaterally rejected the international war crimes court endorsed by 87 other nations.

Despite the evidence of these and other shortcomings, the authors place Bush firmly in the pantheon of American leaders. In contrast, the recent Siena Research Institute survey placed George W. 27th from the top of the rankings of the 43 US Presidents. By my scorecard, Bush gets high marks for keeping a firm grip on the levers of power, for retaining the admiration of his political base, and for raising a record campaign war chest to crush his political opponents. So far his biggest gambles are the war in Iraq and a US tax cut that most benefits a relatively few. I venture to predict that historians will be arguing over the consequences of both these initiatives for years to come.

So two years is too short a time to gauge the Bush legacy. As to whether he's "getting results", the evidence is still accumulating. There's no question that Bush is generally popular (despite the fact that he lost the national election in 2001 by nearly a half million votes), although his recent ratings with the public have flagged. But popular surveys are notoriously unreliable as metrics for achievement, particularly when applied to current leaders. George W.'s father, President George Bush rated high in the polls after the 1991 Gulf War, but in the following months the country perceived him as out of touch with economic realities and elected William Clinton.

Examples of precipitous and unpredicted falls from grace in the corporate world include a number of previously revered executives like Bill Agee of Morrison Knudsen, Percy Barnevik of ABB, Dennis Koslowski of Tyco, and John Rigas of Adelphia. And yes, even GE's former CEO, Jack Welch, has some tarnish on his reputation despite decades of being lionized as one of America's most successful corporate leaders.

No one wants George W. Bush to fail. The threats he faces are too ominous. The US economy has lost three million jobs as of mid 2003. Global warming is a reality with enormous consequences. The US is on track to run record deficits. North Korea has atomic bombs, and a notoriously poor sense of international collegiality. Iran has nuclear material, medium range missiles, and a theocracy that institutionalizes hate for the US and Israel. We are a land of tempting targets, and the world has plenty of people eager to take credit for attacking them. Oh yes, and Osama and Saddam have gone underground.

We can take heart from the fact that some leaders who at first seem wanting do rise to the challenge, as witness the increasing respect historians give Harry Truman for his achievements as 33rd US President. Nowadays, the crucible of the Iraq reconstruction and peace making will have to be a learning experience for George W. Bush. Whether the lesson will inspire him to take a seat in the front of the class and become an avid student of Presidential leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom most historians consider to have been the greatest, remains to be seen. George W. is a work in progress.

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