It’s a stretch to use anecdata to build a theory…save when the evidence is overwhelming, as it is here, of the widespread erosion of executive ability. It’s not be controversial to point out that the caliber of what passes for leadership in the West is now piss poor, and there’s a dearth of promising upstarts to challenge the old guard. When Jamie Dimon is as good as it gets, you know it’s bad.
The functioning of many important government and private institutions has deteriorated markedly in recent decades. Arguably, most of these fish rotted from the head. And if so, why has the executive function, which in very simple terms is assessing situations, deciding whether and how to act, and they carrying through, has decayed so quickly that poor top-level performance is widely visible?
This is such a sprawling phenomenon that I hope readers will chip in with examples from their business and personal lives. To help stimulate discussion, I’ll also toss out some possible causes. But a multi-symptom pathology that has infested already complex organizations can no doubt be attributed to many drivers.1 And the drivers may differ as a result of pre-existing conditions (social structures and norms, institutional focus).
Some of many many examples:
The failure of anyone in the Federal government with clout to show up at the scene of the East Palestine train bomb. Federal officials are supposed to appear to show concern, see first hand what needs are most urgent, promise to help and do so.
This stands out because it took very little effort to pretend to care, yet Team Biden could not be bothered. It’s a glaring example of government and elite neglect of rot in the body public: opioid abuse, gun violence (suicides still top homicides), falling life expectancy. Those at the top carry on as if these problems are no concern of theirs, when they are just as exposed to repeat Covid case damage as the lower orders.3
The considerable decline of the British civil service. Readers tell us it is almost entirely hollowed out, with (at least as of some years ago) a few very old farts as Keepers of the Knowledge, and the young ‘uns not of great caliber and not performing at historical levels. This decay became evident during Brexit, where the UK often produced rambling, grandiose position statements, in stark contrast to the spare, carefully drafted EU counterparts.2
Rotting infrastructure. The Volcker Alliance estimated the total amount of deferred maintenance in the US was over $1 trillion as of 2019. Building roads and fixing bridges puts money in local pockets and, crassly, can buy votes of the companies in the fix-up chain. It’s also a bennie for business, since bigger and better roads means more efficient movement of goods and workers. None other than hard core neoliberal Larry Summers pumped for precisely this sort of spending, saying it paid for itself, that every $1 of infrastructure catch-up could generate as much as $3 in additional GDP growth.
Promotion of and herding into bad business models. Only recently has the business press worked out that corporate superstar Jack Welch was singularly responsible for the destruction of a once-great American company, General Electric.4 GE used its finance arm to manage profits to a degree that smacked of fraud. Analysts should have been suspicious of, and weren’t, of GE’s Madoff-like ability to meet its numbers.
Mind you, it wasn’t that Welch was lauded. The media has a nasty tendency to over-hype and then attack. It’s that Welch became the archetype of a new bad American product, the CEO as celebrity, and his novel practices were adopted with as much scrutiny as Hollywood diets, like firing 10% of staff every year.
And it wasn’t just Welch, but he was an extremely durable case. Consider the go-go S&Ls. Enron. AIG. Uber. And to add insult to injury, plenty of solidly performing companies like Toys’R’Us were run into the ground by private equity overleverage and underinvestment.
Self-censorship among the influential One conservative contact argues that the US and Europe have unimaginably lousy leaders because that’s what the wealthy and powerful want. But what about Brexit? The business community failed to advocate for its own interests, particularly with respect to the need for much greater preparation for a hard border. I was told repeatedly that they were cowed into silence about the coming disruptions and costs out of fear of government reprisals. So who is in charge, exactly? Similarly, during the never-ending EU sanctions-gasm, German manufacturers were zip-lipped about how much more expensive energy would lead to permanent production cutbacks and even plant closures. Surely there would have been an acceptable way to broach the topic, like the cost to communities that would lose jobs and how that burden might be shared.
Inadequate climate change programs. Yes, it’s understandable, if also disastrous, that action to combat climate change has been woefully inadequate. Too many people will have to give up comfortable habits and many rice bowls will be broken. But the evidence of damaged executive functioning is the lack of any full bore, non-green-energy rainbows and unicorns plans.
The world has known climate change is bearing down on us since at least the 2007 IPCC reports. So where is the monster academic/NGO document laying out a systematic vision of how provisioning for society, around the world, has to change? It might take a very big team say 30 months to produce a report with two well-developed scenarios. Pointing out the military is a big part of the problem would be reason alone to gig up this sort of document. A systematic approach, even if critics could poke holes in it, would elevate the level of thinking and set a higher bar for other plans.
These problems are so wide ranging and deep-seated that they are very unlikely to lend themselves to reductivist explanations. But let me suggest a few possible culprits:
The erosion of local communities and with them, accountability. When I was a kid, the US had many companies headquartered in mid-sized cities like Dayton, Ohio. That plus the fact that smaller cities then routinely had a morning and evening newspaper meant there was a cadre of local notables who cared about their image and stature and were (compared to now) subject to being embarrassed in their town if caught out in self-serving conduct. Conversely, it was also comparatively cheap to gain cultural capital, say by donating to an important local charity or sponsoring work-study programs at the local uni.
Admittedly given regulatory approval costs, drugs are not local products. But do you think the Sacklers could have gotten away with almost single-handedly creating the opioid crisis had they been in any proximity to the communities they were destroying? They were straight out of the Third Man screenplay:
The related problem of complexity. As American and European industries first consolidated, shifting corporate action to fewer and bigger cities and then outsourcing and offshoring took hold, executives are managing much more sprawling, complex, and risk-exposed operations.
As companies and competitive settings have become harder to contend with, many business chiefs have fallen back on simple guidelines like “Maximize shareholder value.” But the principle of obliquity finds that in highly complex systems, we can’t get enough of a grasp of their behavior to chart a simple course. A brief introduction of this idea, from former Financial Times columnist John Kay, who stressed that when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed:
Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.
Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them…
Obliquity gives rise to the profit-seeking paradox: the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented. ICI and Boeing illustrate how a greater focus on shareholder returns was self-defeating in its own narrow terms. Comparisons of the same companies over time are mirrored in contrasts between different companies in the same industries. In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements.
Reversion to tribalism and clientelism. In complex societies, participants face competing and often conflicting obligations. I am fond of the wisdom of the great social theorist Jamie Lannister:
So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.
So what happens when just about no one, even high on the food chain, had a secure perch? Think of the fate of an exec that the CEO comes to view as a threat because said exec is questioning some regulatory corners cutting? Senior officers who are suddenly turfed out typically find it hard to land well. Bye bye not just ski vacations and the summer home, but potentially the Upper East Side coop and tuition at Dalton.
This greater perceived need to focus on career self-preservation dovetails with the tendency in the US for higher education to become an exercise in credentialing, not learning.5 The reason girls do better in math in Iran and other parts of the Middle East than boys do is, for the most part, educational attainment does not help with career prospects. They depend almost entirely on family/tribal connection. For girls, however, doing well in school gives them an advantage in a job market that is generally unfriendly to women.
Because the role of “elite education as class preservation” has become obvious,6 its corrosive effects are being missed. It means that performance in college does not matter all that much. That is consistent with the reported dumbing-down of even supposedly top college programs.
If students learn they can skate in college, it’s not hard to think they’ll carry those habits into life. Hence the over-reliance on glibness and controversy-dodging.
I’ll pause here. I could easily write a post four times as long and barely scratch the surface. So perhaps it’s better to leave this piece as a forcing device and seek input and comment from our wordly-wise commentariat.
1 While many medical websites have sections on executive function impairment, Medical News Today points out:
Executive function skills help people complete tasks and interact with others. They include a range of skills, such as:
- planning and organization
- concentrating and managing mental focus
- analyzing and processing information
- managing emotions and behavior
- remembering details
- managing time
- solving problems
An executive function disorder impairs some of these skills, which can affect a person’s ability to manage and organize themselves to achieve goals.
However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) does not recognize executive function disorder as a specific mental health condition. Instead, executive function issues are symptomatic of other neurological, mental health, and behavioral disorders.
2 Some may pooh-pooh the importance of preparing solid position papers: “Oh, the EU is a mess. What does it matter if they can produce nice documents?” This view reveals a major misunderstanding of how large, and particularly, highly political organizations work. The statement-drafting process is a means for (hopefully) achieving a consensus. Better and more careful drafting generally signifies that the participants thought long and hard about every word. In addition, being able to produce professional-grade output is a minimum standard, of being able to deliver completed staff work. That does not mean the EU can do well on higher-order tasks but it at least retains some basic competencies which the UK Foreign Office, formerly one of its most prestigious operations, has lost.
3 Elites thinking that Covid will let them off easy is another form of self-delusion (before you argue, remember all of the photos of presumed dirty help wearing masks at parties, serving unmasked guests?) Perhaps due to thinness being a status marker, they believe that not being fat or diabetic means Covid will be nice to them. But cancer survivors are at high risk. And IM Doc and others have observed the super fit often being hard hit by Covid. Fitness fanaticism has a strong following among the well-heeled.
4 A friend started her business career in clerical position at GE and worked her way up into operations management. She learned so much that she was later able to turn around and run a successful niche manufacturer that now has clients like Mercedes and NASA. Long before Welch’s halo was removed, she was giving chapter, book, and verse of how Welch had inherited a superbly functioning company from Reg Jones and quickly started to run it into the ground.
5 Please do not try saying Ivy League educations are worthless. I did learn a lot at Harvard, including the equivalent of hand-eye coordination in writing (as in how to make a sentence say what I intended it to say, and not more or less), synthesizing large amounts of information, and writing long papers (as in being able to structure a complex argument with supporting evidence).
6 When I was a kid, legacy admissions were not all that important to Harvard or Yale. Each school could have taken 4x as many applicants from the likes of Andover, Exeter, Groton, and St. Paul’s as they did, and many of the rejected were from legacy families. Similarly, only one student I met from an old family fell short in the intellectual/academic accomplishments area. The others, aside from sometimes showing off their particularly nice manners and admitting to being seasoned skiers and/or sailors, were otherwise pretty much on a par with other students.