A Word About Accountability and Leadership

A lot of conservatives are up in arms about John McCain’s call for the firing of Chris Cox as SEC Chairman due to the collapse of numerous Wall Street firms on his watch. There is a more than fair argument against McCain’s position: that Cox is a smart, capable conservative and expert in the area who hasn’t really done anything wrong, or at least hadn’t until the recent move against short sellers (I don’t buy that Cox is above criticism, but I don’t think this mess is in any way his fault). But there is also a case to be made for the emerging McCain leadership style. As McCain explained today:

Dwight David Eisenhower, when he was commander and he was in charge of the largest military operation in history, the invasion of Normandy. He went to his quarters the night before the invasion and wrote out two letters. One of them sent a letter of congratulation, a messgae of congratulations to the brave Americans who landed in Normandy and made the most successful invasion and partly brought about the beginning of the end of World War II. The other letter he wrote out was his resignation from the United States army, taking full responsibility for the failure of that invasion.My friends that kind of accountability and responsibility is missing in Washington today and that’s why I believe the chairman of the SEC should resign.

That’s McCain’s view in a nutshell: you produce results, or you step aside, regardless of how well you performed your duties. You own your watch. It’s a decidedly military outlook, as befits a man who spent so many years in the Navy. It’s perhaps an odd way for McCain to approach leadership – in his book Faith of My Fathers, McCain movingly recounts the bitterness he inherited over how his grandfather was scapegoated unfairly by Admiral Halsey for a mistake Halsey himself made in steering the fleet too close to a storm, mistreatment that McCain ascribes as a possible cause for the elder Admiral McCain’s fatal heart attack on his return from the war.

I don’t, personally, think that this unforgiving, only-results-matter management style is the best possible way to run an organization in terms of motivating people, and neither is it really a good or fair way to treat subordinates, but it’s one well-established leadership style, and it’s been successful for plenty of people in business, the military, politics and sports. Certainly it’s a sharp contrast to President Bush; while Bush has sacked a lot of people (including Harvey Pitt, his first SEC Chairman who was also just in the wrong place at the wrong time), he’s nonetheless frequently found himself in trouble for leaving loyal but incompetent subordinates in place too long after they became obvious political liabilities. McCain is sending a message: the likes of Mike Brown, Alberto Gonzales and Scott McClellan will not be left in their jobs in his White House. Loyalty will give way to accountability.On a purely political level, in the real world of politics, there’s a case to be made about being unsentimental about letting people go when they represent a serious political liability. I wouldn’t blame Bush in the least, for example, if he sacked Cox regardless of the merits of his job performance. Political leaders fight for a cause, and that cause is bigger than any one man. A politician who errs on the side of scapegoating people who through no fault of their own preside over disasters is going to do better in the long run than one who fights till the last dog dies for friends he can no longer afford. It’s an ugly business but it must be played to win in the real world.

This is a management style that suits McCain, an old man who is likely to serve only one term and already has an impressive collection of enemies. It’s a style that’s also well-suited to McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. One of the recurring themes in Palin’s various jobs is that she fires a lot of people – people who don’t agree with her policy goals, people who don’t follow her orders, people who oppose her in public, people who are too close to corrupt interests or political foes. This is, again, a good way to make enemies who compile vendettas against you – it was her firing of an agency head who was publicly insubordinate that led to the ‘Tasergate’ investigation headed by a representative of the Obama campaign – but removing the people who are not 100% with you is the one best way to impose your will on an organization, a task that’s famously difficult in large public bureaucracies. That was how Rudy Giuliani ran New York, and why he delivered results as an agent of change. A McCain-Palin Administration may not be the friendliest workplace, but the one thing it won’t do is let the grass grown under its feet as far as holding subordinates accountable.