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Daily Dose: Which Matters More, The Game Plan Or The Coach?

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post brought up a darn good question earlier this week: Which is more important, the person(ality) at the top of your organization or the way it’s structured?

In many ways, this brings to mind the old debate about a coach’s job. Is it to motivate players, inspire them, help each one individually perform at his (or her) best and ensure they’re working well together? Or is it to implement the system, the game plan, the Xs and Os that the team can learn and that will give it a competitive edge even after he’s gone?

Pincus’s story is actually about the Intelligence Community. With Robert Gates stepping down as SecDef, he wonders, who will keep the seventeen disparate agencies and organizations that make up the IC working together?

Gates, a former CIA director and for the past four years defense secretary, uniquely understood the need to balance national and military intelligence interests. … While he has been secretary, traditional Washington-based rivalries between officials at CIA and the Pentagon were damped down.

Personalities over structure in the intelligence community?

At least one former Director of National Intelligence, Robert Blair, believes the problem can be solved with structural changes on the part of Congress. He thinks a reorganization will allow the community to perform better regardless of who happens to be leading it at any given time (most notably, he wants to separate the CIA into two pieces).

“Administrations and personalities come and go,” Blair said, “but it seems to me it’s the responsibility of the legislation to establish that structure.”

For Pincus, the team’s success depends on its coach. The key to the IC’s relatively seamless operations has been Gates, who he calls “the linchpin that has helped keep the wheels from coming off what has occasionally been an unstable vehicle.” For DNI Blair, on the other hand, it’s the game plan that makes the difference, and if we can structure the IC correctly, it won’t matter who’s calling the shots.

Which is more important for organizational success, the guy in charge or the system he puts in place?


“Daily Dose of the Washington Post” is a blog series created by GovLoop in partnership with The Washington Post. If you see great a story in the Post and want to ask a question around it, please send it to [email protected].

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Alicia Mazzara

Both are important, but in my experience, the person in charge usually makes or breaks a project or organization. I understand that, in theory, a good system would correct for disorganized managers or revolving leaders, but I am skeptical of how realistic this really is. Even a really well-designed system can’t account for every event; plans will go awry. A good leader can often overcome a badly designed system, but what happens when the system fails and the person in charge doesn’t have the capacity to think outside the box? I think it’s better to have strong leaders who can motivate people, exercise flexibility and discretion in unexpected situations, and have a “big picture” vision for the organization. (Best case scenario, of course, would be to have both of these things.)

Dave Uejio

Just to be contrary, I think the design of systems is extremely important, far more important that the contributions of an individual leader. I would caveat that by saying that design extends far beyond mere structure, including institutions, rules, processes and practices.

As an example, I would say that the Constitution, and the government established therein far outweighs cumulative individual contributions of the leaders who drafted it. Of course only through extraordinary leadership did the Constitution come to be, but the American system it underpins is exponentially more influential than any one administration.

Daniel Crystal

I agree with Alicia, both are important. I think employees need good structure to understand their roles and responsibilities, but the boss is the one who ultimately steers the ship. That being said, I’ve seen plenty of supervisors, both in the military and in the civilian workforce, who were less than stellar, but were fortunate/smart enough to be surrounded by subordinates that wanted to make them look good and helped them excel.

Mike Sayre

I think it’s impossible to separate this question from the goals and nature of the organization in question. For instance, if you’re trying to run a group that’s policing for securities fraud, I think you need a small team with a loose organization and a good leader — because organization agility and innovation count if you want to keep up with the cheats. Same goes for national intelligence. If, on the other hand, you’re doing something more procedural, like evaluating mortgages to determine who gets help with foreclosures, clearly the system is going to be much more important, as it provides for a reliable way to get the job done regardless of who’s doing it.

I think the real question here is what we mean when we say “good leader”. Do you mean a good leader like Patton? Churchill? Somebody who has been to the mountaintop? Or is it somebody who quietly ferries information between the people who need it — so you don’t really know who’s doing it, you just see things happening?

I don’t see this as a question of system vs. leadership, but as a question of leadership style.

Caryn Wesner-Early

In government, it usually seems to be the system that rules all. With leaders changing every four years or so, in order to keep a long-term path in mind, the system has to be able to stand alone. On the other hand, we’ve all seen brilliant leaders done in by an entrenched system that places “the way we’ve always done it” above all other considerations. The path between these extremes is a very difficult one, and most people can only name one or two instances (if that many!) in which the person/personality and the system have managed to work together for change, improvement, and/or long-term stability. This is one of those ways in which the government may have a harder task than private industry.