When the Buck Keeps Going

buckIn his controversial book about the George W. Bush administration, The Way of the World, author Ron Suskind wrote that Vice President Dick Cheney preferred to keep the president partially in the dark.

In Cheney’s view, according to Suskind, the Watergate scandal that took down Richard Nixon had resulted from “the way the president had, in essence, been over-briefed.” Therefore, Cheney felt that Bush should never be told certain things directly, in order to make the “president less accountable for his actions.”

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has pleaded unawareness of several embarrassing episodes, most notably that the National Security Agency was listening in on the calls of foreign leaders and that the Obamacare website was running into big problems prior to its launch.

As a practical matter, no president can be aware of everything going on in the sprawling government he theoretically manages,” Peter Baker noted this week in the New York Times. “But as a matter of politics, Mr. Obama’s plea of ignorance may do less to deflect blame than to prompt new questions about just how much in charge he really is.”

The headline of the article: “Where the Buck Stops, Some See a Bystander” (an invocation of one of Peter Drucker’s favorite definitions of leadership).

Indeed, without a doubt, implementing two management rules from Drucker would have made things a little better for Obama.

The first rule applies to the healthcare website: When you give an order or make a decision, follow up and get feedback from someone other than your immediate subordinate. In this case, specifically, Obama should not have relied so much on assurances from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as he apparently did.

Reports—all an American president is normally able to mobilize—are not much help,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “All military services have long ago learned that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for himself whether it has been carried out. At the least he sends one of his own aides—he never relies on what he is told by the subordinate to whom the order was given.”

Second, and more important, is the rule of surprises: Prevent them.

“In an organization, there is no such thing as a pleasant surprise,” Drucker warned. “To be exposed to a surprise in the organization one is responsible for is humiliation, and usually public humiliation. . . . The terrible fumbling in the first year of Bill Clinton’s administration was largely caused by the new president’s not organizing himself and his staff to protect the president from surprises.”

What do you think? How much blame does President Obama himself deserve for the NSA scandal and the mess with the health insurance exchanges?