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Obama leadership and the skills of “muddling through”

In recent days, there has been much discussion about specific steps, about detail, about what should and what shouldn’t be done.  In an effort to get out of the economic difficulties we find ourselves in, there is a clamor for specificity and a constant calling for laying out specific steps.  Embedded in this critique is the idea we can comprehensively and rationally approach crisis–that we can plan and model our way out of the quagmire we find ourselves in; that we can weigh costs and benefits; and that we can minimize risk by developing a specific long-term plan.  We have the sense that there are targets we can evaluate.  For example, we know we can specify how many jobs will be added to the economy, or we can delineate the stock market range we want to achieve. We believe we have the capacity of evaluating different means of achieving the goals and that we have the time to evaluate which action is appropriate and which is not, which will yield the best results and which won’t.  The reality is that in the eye of a storm we may not have the time, the resources, or even the knowledge to pursue all alternatives or evaluate all our plans and steps.

We may make rational decisions, but have to make those decisions under conditions of what Herbert Simon (1972) calls “bounded rationality.”  Given time limitations and pressures to make decisions, we may be forced to go with what we think is the best decision at hand.  In such a world, smart leaders understand that they have to proceed by what is often called, “the art of muddling through” (Lindblom, 1959), where we go ahead one step at a time, adjusting as we proceed.  In this context, our ends may be restricted by our means, and our means may be restricted by our ends.  While we may want our leaders to lay out a specific and exact plan, like the child climbing a tree, they know that while they can plan how to get to the top, they’re going to have to go one branch at a time, one step at a time.  As we progress to the top, we have to test each branch’s ability to hold our weight, its capacity to let us push forward.

Leadership is not simply laying out a plan and following it.  It’s about our capacity to look to the top of the tree and climb it carefully, making adjustments as we step from one branch to another.  The success of the Obama administration will depend on the capacity of the key actors to master the skills of muddling through.

Lindblom, Charles E. (1959). “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’,”  Public Administration Review 19, no. 2.

Simon, Herbert (1972). “Theories of Bounded Rationality”, 1972, in Radner and Radner, editors, Decision and Organisation.



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