Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Barack Obama as the Ultimate Corporate Climber

Barack Obama comes off as the most intelligent, reasonable candidate left. But I think a lot of this comes via a lack of track record. His stint at the Harvard review, he didn't pen one article, nor while on the faculty at U Chicago. He didn't propose any big legislation as a state senator in Illinois, or in the US senate. At least McCain has McCain-Feingold, and Hillary has health care, and their failures in these areas are learning experiences that will make them better candidates. I'll take someone who has failed in a sincere effort that was reasonable at the time, over someone with zero experience any time, because the best attribute of leader of something with a not-obvious objective function is modest ambition, and nothing teaches modesty better than failure in previous panaceas.

The problem with guys who merely talk reasonably, but have no record of achievement, is we have a tendency to infer an Olympian reasonableness and moderation to their views when they are conventionally successful. Yet many of these guys are merely afraid of looking stupid, so say little about anything controversial and relevant to their career. For example, I know several very successful people who have mastered the art of saying very little about actual business tactics. And if they find themselves in a group that is successful for reasons unrelated to their action (eg, a portfolio manager for telecom in the 1990s), most people assume they are very bright. You really have to have an insider's knowledge to know this, so you get this unalloyed praise out of ignorance of outsiders deferring to success, and self-interested flattery by ambitious insiders eager to form coalitions.

Most people prefer not to look stupid, and it is easier to say nothing than take a risky view. Yet there are so many of these people, the fact that most successful executives in large organizations adopt this strategy does not mean it is optimal, because there are many such people mired in middle layers because their groups were not winners of accidental success in one's field, like people lucky to be in telecoms in the the 1990s. I would not advocate this strategy to someone young and smart, in spite of the fact that most successful politicians and businessmen adopt it, because those successful people are more like lottery winners than self-made men.

The average political leader is really a meek person intellectually, taking well-worn, prosaic positions, and then heaping immoderately large praise on their unassailable objectives (read Obama quotes here, and note none of them advocate anything anyone would be against). Forcefully articulating big ideas is helpful to the policy wonks who need to use these to rationalize their petty objectives. Really thoughtful policy tends to come from academics or journalists who first test them in the field, and so only after several decades of success, does one justify an idea based on Milton Friedman, who was for many years a lonely voice.

But if you have no good novel ideas, and really no good opinion on current ideas, the following approach is recommended for moving up the corporate ladder. First, have strong opinions about things like sports and movies, and also have keen grasp of conspicuous historical events in your field (Obama took a bold pro-Bear position prior to last year's super bowl). So, in finance, if you read an insider's account of the dot-com bubble, the S&L crisis, or the Long Term Capital Management, you will appear to have a good, detailed knowledge. Never champion a new idea, or take a view on a current, controversial plan. You will only look foolish. Lastly, get a haircut every 2 weeks, and wear good clothes, paying special importance to shoes. Now, when people are looking for a new head of corporate development, you are perfect, because you have never made enemies, and you seem like a reasonable guy. People won't remember that you never have opinions on novel stuff, because their memory will be dominated by your strong opinions on irrelevancies, and your hindsight knowledge about the internet bubble shows a courageous and savvy insider's view (this is the key subtlety to the empty suit strategy, you need some camouflage). Then, inherit a bunch of projects, and manage them by merely listening quietly to your employees bitch about each other, by saying, 'don't worry, I'll take care of it', which means, 'I'll call them into a meeting and listen to them bitch about you'.

Obama seems like a smart guy, but his voting record suggests he merely takes the stereotypical, unthinking, leftish position on everything. The fact that he will rationalize this well is not a good thing.


AHWest said...

Excellent description of the typical politician and of a contentless ladder-climber in finance. You forget to mention that such folks typically will besides sports, etc., remember an enormous number of names, and inessential details of people. The character Peter Keating in "The Fountainhead" is the archetype here.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Yes, Peter Keating is a good one.

Anonymous said...

I don't think your characterization of Obama is accurate. There's a good review of his legislative record here. The gist:
I do follow legislation, at least on some issues, and I have been surprised by how often Senator Obama turns up, sponsoring or co-sponsoring really good legislation on some topic that isn't wildly sexy, but does matter. His bills tend to have the following features: they are good and thoughtful bills that try to solve real problems; they are in general not terribly flashy; and they tend to focus on achieving solutions acceptable to all concerned, not by compromising on principle, but by genuinely trying to craft a solution that everyone can get behind.

Anonymous said...

Republicans have tried to demonize the word 'liberal' for years. So anyone who adopts any voting record that falls under this category can hardly be seen as someone who is taking the easy way out. Particularly post 911.

His speech on race during the Jeremiah Wright issue against the strong objections from his own advisers is hardly someone who is not willing to take a stand.

Finally anyone who would run for president has to know that their entire existence will be scrutinized to the nth degree. I don't know anyone who would put themselves or their family through that.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ogged.

Also, really, in a republic you don't want a bold innovator. Being President isn't running a startup. I happen to think a good dose of conventional wisdom from today's liberals is just what the doctor ordered. If Obama's even temperament makes him an "empty suit" I don't have a problem with that.

Anonymous said...

The key point, rephrased: Obama is clearly smart but that doesn't imply he's a good leader.

Based on voting record McCain seems okay but he has a creepy authoritarian bent. Thankfully my vote is meaningless; I pride myself on completely ignoring all election coverage besides Intrade (kudos to my iPod and TiVo).

Anonymous said...

McCain does have McCain Feingold, but he also has the Keating 5 debacle.

Dragkon said...

In response to Nagita, Obama has since threw Wright to the wind... Where does that put you now? By your own words, that was what attracted you to him, and he has turned his back on that stance.