Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Suskind's "Without a Doubt" (2)

In Without a Doubt Suskind also dissects Bush's education. Perhaps this particularly struck me because I have recently interviewed one the Professors at the Harvard Business School critical of the president's policies.

Suskind reports:

Bush has been called the C.E.O. president, but that's just a catch phrase - he never ran anything of consequence in the private sector. The M.B.A. president would be more accurate: he did, after all, graduate from Harvard Business School. And some who have worked under him in the White House and know about business have spotted a strange business-school time warp. It's as if a 1975 graduate from H.B.S. - one who had little chance to season theory with practice during the past few decades of change in corporate America - has simply been dropped into the most challenging management job in the world.

One aspect of the H.B.S. method, with its emphasis on problems of actual corporations, is sometimes referred to as the "case cracker" problem. The case studies are static, generally a snapshot of a troubled company, frozen in time; the various "solutions" students proffer, and then defend in class against tough questioning, tend to have very short shelf lives. They promote rigidity, inappropriate surety. This is something H.B.S. graduates, most of whom land at large or midsize firms, learn in their first few years in business. They discover, often to their surprise, that the world is dynamic, it flows and changes, often for no good reason. The key is flexibility, rather than sticking to your guns in a debate, and constant reassessment of shifting realities. In short, thoughtful second-guessing.

George W. Bush, who went off to Texas to be an oil wildcatter, never had a chance to learn these lessons about the power of nuanced, fact-based analysis. The small oil companies he ran tended to lose money; much of their value was as tax shelters. (The investors were often friends of his father's.) Later, with the Texas Rangers baseball team, he would act as an able front man but never really as a boss.

I guess the Harvard B School Profs would say their method has moved on since 1975, but Suskind makes a convincing case that Bush hasn't.

When I talked to to Prof. Wells I asked him if senior people in government, or influential on the administration had responded to the letter he and his colleaugues had written. He said none had directly, but he hoped I would get some comments. I contacted the office of Paul O'Neill, Bush's former Treasury Sectretary (and focus of Ron Suskind's brilliant book). His PA passed on my request, (commenting in passing that she thought the letter was "powerful"). But O'Neill declined to comment.

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