Kissing up, kicking down

Apr 22 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Carl Ford's appearance at the senate Foreign Relations Committee proceedings were not without personal risk as he described John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador, as "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" whose attempt to intimidate a mid-level analyst raises "real questions about his suitability for high office."

So why did Carl "defender of the little people" Ford, come forward to tell the truth about John "serial abuser" Bolton?

It can't be big P politics because Ford is Republican and conservative so it seems most likely that Ford believes at least two things: that abusing power and authority is wrong and that it is an ineffective style that will damage the objectives of the USA.

Clearly, Ford has an impressive gift for a powerful and damning phrase, but is he correct?

Let's look first at the evidence describing Bolton's style. In 2002 he berated an analyst and sought to have him fired simply because he disagreed with Bolton's assessment that Cuba has a biological weapons program with the consequence that analysts did not feel that they could speak the truth if the truth ran contrary to the opinions of their superiors.

It is also alleged that he tried to get a CIA Latin America analyst fired. According to USA Today, "Rumors of Bolton's temper have swirled around Washington for years", and according to Ford, "he's got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he's kicking."

Why was the analyst so intimidated that he couldn't speak the truth to Bolton's face?
Bolton on Monday acknowledged trying to get the analyst reassigned but said it was because he had "gone behind my back", which leaves the obvious question: why was the analyst so intimidated that he couldn't speak the truth to Bolton's face?

Leaders need the truth but Bolton's approach will reduce communication to him to flattery and capitulation. It's something that Machiavelli recognised 500 years ago when he counselled the princes of the Medici family to conduct themselves in such a way that those around them, "realize that the more freely they speak, the more they will please you", "for there is no other way to guard against flattery than by making men understand that by telling you the truth that they will not injure you."

Machiavelli distrusted flattery because it prevented useful information and discordant voices from being considered by those in power. He reasoned that it was better to have the information and choose to ignore it or act counter to it than to act in ignorance.

And so it is today or tomorrow. Or thirty years ago when the 'infectious optimism' of John F. Kennedy's team allied to the 'arrogance' of the CIA team working for him led to the ludicrous night time amphibious invasion of Cuba, the capture of 1,977 Cuban rebels, and the mortifying embarrassment of the US president. The plan was always doomed to failure but no-one would tell the president the truth to his face. Why not?

The Bay of Pigs fiasco was one of the presidential decisions that received analysis from Irving Janis, social psychologist at Yale, who in 1971 described his, very popular, theory of "groupthink" as one where faulty decisions are made because of "a desire for conformity and concurrence within the leadership group at the expense of critical and objective thinking."

The only trouble with it as a theory was that it could only explain the past retrospectively after it was, like Charles and Camilla's apology, too late.

It would be far better to be able to know in advance which groups, teams or regimes are likely to avoid the truth and make stupendously stupid decisions. This is why a team at the University of California at Berkeley has developed something with the unappealing acronym of GDQS, or Group Dynamics Q Sort, that tests groupthink using a set of 100 questions that assess the groups decision-making dynamics (e.g. "The group leader is insulated from criticism" versus "The group is exposed to a wide range of views and arguments").

The team is now assessing governments to see to what extent they are "well-informed and open to alternatives". These include the Bush administration and its ability to shield itself from any information that contradicted its desired course of action.

If being open to alternatives really does improve decision making, as Janis and the Berkley group argue, then what are we to make of the view of a contributor to the Al Franken, Air America radio show, who said, in response to the Bolton situation,

"Wake up call: The vast majority of managers at every level in American business and government are mindless thugs, abusive kiss up kick down morons who have not the ability to lead. Welcome to the culture that is the United States of America!"

Is Bolton just a bad man with a bad haircut, poor impulse control and unruly facial hair? Or is he also symptomatic of a management quality issue?

The response of shareholders and boards of directors when confronted with the bad behaviour of senior, or junior managers, is often very similar to Senator Richard Lugar, the committee chairman, who distanced himself from Bolton's approach saying, "obviously, Secretary Bolton's demeanour is not my style", but still felt that he would vote for Bolton because, "the paramount issue is reform of the U.N. and the confidence President Bush and Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice have in this nominee".

Or, in other words, "if the Pres wants a bully who am I to argue?" or "if he gets results then it might be morally distasteful but business is business."

But being too scary or too powerful stops the truth getting to the very people who need it most. (Think Star Wars - No one ever told Darth Vader that he needed an inhaler and no-one seems to tell Lucas about how his CGI obsession is ruining his legacy).

And so we find a situation where the weak Ė employees - become targets for abuse and stop sharing valuable truth with their managers, while the powerful - boards and senators - act weak because they are willing to ignore means in return for ends.

But if history demonstrates one thing it is that this kowtowing to bullies is both morally and pragmatically wrong, something the pitiful decisions made by the "kiss up, kick down" guys will keep proving again, and again, and again.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.