On the Attack!

At an Inc. magazine forum last week, I found myself on the attack. The target? Me. I was engaging in a moderated dialogue with Seth Godin—not only do I have the utmost respect for him, but we are in agreement a frightening percentage of the time. It seems at times that we use the same adjectives and adverbs to make the same points. Hence, the surprise at some areas of disagreement.

As you know from my last post, I’m preoccupied with the financial markets chaos—which I see as anything but tamed, though I strongly support recent decisions to boldly interfere in the untrammeled market mechanism. One of the questions, following my public encomium (also in the last post) for Msssrs Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner, was about the need for authoritarian-significantly centralized leadership at times. I am a rabid (pretty much the right word) decentralist, but I gave a firm and immediate “Yes” to the question.

Seth attacked, reminding me of my roots and arguing that authoritarianism is a slippery slope. And there is always an excuse for it.

I agree about both the slippery slope and the ubiquity of excuses for longer policy manuals, particularly following screw-ups, and more and more centralization of decision making—ad infinitum.

My counter argument has mostly to do with speed. That is, there are times, rare occasions, such as the end of last week, when hours make-made all the difference. There was no time to waste and no time to consult. This is pretty much the case following any major disaster.

There are a bushel of caveats. The situation must be dire—and seen as dire by a majority of the organization’s members. Speedy action must be widely seen as imperative, and the absence of speedy action must be deemed catastrophic. The authoritarians must be greatly respected and skilled. (In a more or less perfect world, as is the case now with Paulson, the authoritarians must be seen as pained by the need to take the controls and make the decisions they feel they are forced to take.) The centralized commanders must soon turn to a consultative mode. (Paulson et al. are now fully engaged with Congress—such engagement began in a matter of hours.) The troops engaged in implementation must indeed be engaged and ready to take autonomous action and initiative within the confines of the decisions made by the top dogs. And a formal system must be in place to implement a pre-arranged sunset for authoritarian action.

With all the checks and balances in place, there will be occasions where, indeed, the authoritarianism extends and extends—think of military coups in the likes of Pakistan and Thailand in fairly recent times, or emergency centralized controls at many a corporation.

I will, then, stand by my principles concerning decentralization, argue for rare exceptions, and worry that the centralists’ mandate will be self-extended in more than a few cases, human nature being what it often sadly is. I will also argue, more oceanically, that human governance of any sort is a necessary but messy affair.

My next assault on myself will be covered in a subsequent post. Meanwhile, I would beg you to weigh in on the case of Tom v. Tom (and Tom v. Seth) concerning centralized leadership.

NB: Jim Collins was also at the Inc. event. Some of you see the two of us at each others’ throats—or, at least, me at his throat. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I was genuinely delighted to see him—it made my day. My respect for him is limitless, and goes back about 30 years. And while I do have some disagreements with him, the fact of the matter is that, like Seth and I do, Jim and I agree, in my opinion, on 99% of what’s important about human affairs—and I unequivocally think that his work has done the world a world of good. And I like him as much as I admire him. (No one I know has more integrity. Period.)

Tom Peters posted this on September 22, 2008, in Strategies.
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