Lessons Not to be Learned From the Tower Board

Tom Peters

The Tower Board report has inspired scores of observers to interpret the consequences of the Iran-Contra debacle for management in general. Such interpretation is wise, but we should avoid making glib generalizations. I therefore propose six things we should not learn from the report:

1. Delegation is dangerous. Most bosses’ acts don’t affect the future of the world. The manager is paid principally to energize, coach, facilitate—and delegate. Delegation, pre- or post-Tower Board, remains every manager’s chief task. Moreover, in my experience, at least nine out of ten managers err on the side of not delegating enough, rather than delegating too much. Our productivity and quality problems are mainly the result of not trusting our workers and junior managers and not sufficiently developing their skills so that they can act more independently. Let’s not allow one manager’s style (President Reagan) to give delegation in general a black eye.

2. You should always thoroughly consider every point of view before reaching a decision. President Reagan was appropriately chastised for not taking Caspar Weinberger’s or George Shultz’s concerns seriously enough. But taken to an extreme, mulling over every facet of an issue can, and all too often does, lead to paralysis.

President Truman is said to have begged for “a one armed economist.” His problem: “I’m so tired of ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that.”‘ He has a good point! Computervision Corp. co-founder Philippe Villers defined entrepreneurship as “unreasonable conviction based on inadequate evidence.” When all the evidence is in, it’s too late. In today’s complex world, of foreign affairs or computers, if we gave equal weight to all views, we would never do anything.

3. Unfailingly delve into details. Former President Jimmy Carter, say most analysts, was “all details, no vision.” President Reagan is “all vision, no details.” The trick is to occasionally probe deeply into a problem from all angles, to assure yourself that key projects and key players are on track. When we read that self-destructing dollars allegedly were offered in exchange for hostages by a fellow in the next office without the President’s knowledge, you know that we have stumbled over an extreme case of detachment, from which there is probably very little we can learn.

4. Make sure that the vision is crystal clear. President Reagan apparently gave off conflicting signals. His vision was (1) staunchly anti-terrorist and (2) equally staunchly “get the hostages back at all costs.” Of course a leader’s vision should be unambiguous, but the world and the marketplace do change, and flexibility is a requirement for the mom-and-pop grocery store as well as for the presidency. We must constantly talk up our vision—and adjust it—in the context of current events that affect it.

5. The President is a manager like all managers. He’s not! Most presidents, unlike most business chiefs, didn’t get to the top by exhibiting superior management skills. The strengths that aid you in getting through the primaries and general election are the antitheses of what it takes to manage effectively. Especially in today’s world of the 15-second news bite, the knack for creating catchy oversimplifications is the antithesis of a knack for managing 5 million people (the federal payroll including the military) and negotiating with 535 Members of Congress.

6. All managers can learn from the Iranian affair. I’d acknowledge that an “executive vice president”—like Don Regan in this instance—who works assiduously to concentrate power in his own hands, and has thereby exacerbated an already hopeless degree of information distortion, is pure poison in any setting.

But more important, the Presidency is different—very different from corporate management. I’ve worked in the White House, and no place else is even remotely like it. You or I don’t want to tell our supervisor bad news. Can you imagine the pressure not to tell the President of the United States bad news about a pet project of his?

There’s also a perpetual-siege mentality. It feels like the press, Congress, most everybody at some point is out to get you—and there’s at least a little bit of truth to that. Frustration is monumental. Here you are, the most powerful person in the world by most standards, yet you can’t seem to get even the simplest things done with all the critical eyes watching your every move. In such circumstances, an Ollie “Rambo” North will unfortunately always look a bit like a godsend.

Finally, the President runs a show where small losses can easily get out of hand. Experimentation, failure, and rapid adjustment are required if you are to compete with the Japanese and 25 new start-ups in the marketplace. “Little failures” have graver consequences at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So, for better or for worse, “let’s give it a try” may not always be appropriate advice for the President.

There’s doubtless a lot to learn from the latest of an appallingly endless skein of White House snafus. But the job and the man bear little relationship to the task of managing the store next door, the night shift at the factory, or maybe even Exxon. Let’s not take it too far.

TPG Communications

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