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A Leader Should Keep Check on the Best and Brightest

Author: Samuel B. Bacharach

There has been much said about the leadership team that is emerging in Washington.  Who leaders rely on will often determine the tactics and the policies that will emerge.  A competent leader, therefore, tends to surround himself or herself with the “best and brightest”.  When a new leader takes over an organization, there is always the hope that they will bring the most knowledgeable, competent, and informed individuals, and these appointments will bring quality results and the best policies.  There is a notion that if you throw enough brains at a problem, you will come up with the best solution.  Those who lead complex, multi-faceted organizations never have all the information they need or all the experience they desire.  This lack of information and experience makes it essential that leaders make the best appointments.  However, the “best and brightest” who act with the full knowledge and arrogance that they are the best and the the brightest can make mistakes, do stupid things, and bring about disaster.

The best and brightest need humility to assure perspective, and a leader who will look over their shoulder to assure results.  Without humility in leadership, without someone truly in charge and without accountability, the best and brightest become cats that no one can herd.  Proactive leaders put in place multi-tier systems of checks and balances to assure that multiple opinions emerge, no one person dominates, and that groupthink is kept in check.  Proactive leaders are not afraid to declare to the best and brightest that they are simply wrong!  A leader must retain the capacity to say, “No way.” A leader must have the capacity to dismiss ideas and suggestions, even when faced with a brilliant Harvard dean in McGeorge Bundy, an ex-president of Harvard, such as Larry Summers, a brilliant senator or even a University of Chicago economist.  A leader must keep in mind that the best and brightest are there to process data, make suggestions, point out possibilities: no more, no less.  When managing the best and brightest, there are some things to be kept in mind:

  • Keep them off balance.  Never let your geniuses wallow in their genius.  Keep throwing problems at them; suggest alternatives.
  • Don’t be too direct in terms of your intentions.
  • Make sure they know who’s in charge. While the best and brightest must have influence and input, they must be constantly aware that the authority to make the final decision, the yes or no, lies with the person in charge.
  • Never fear to dismiss.  A competent leader must be capable of not simply dismissing the ideas suggested to him, but dismissing the person who made the idea.  This isn’t a threat, it is simply to make clear there are limits to their tolerance.
  • Be careful not to let cooperation become a cabal. You want to encourage the best and brightest to work together, but you want to avoid their becoming insular and locked into a groupthink coalition.

A leader should always be wary of the best and brightest, as David Halberstam reminded us years ago, and as Gordon Goldstein reminds us today in his new book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.  If you have no time to look at Halberstam or Goldstein, you might consider reading Richard Holbrooke’s smart review of Goldstein’s latest book in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  It will certainly have you thinking about the issues.



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