The Right Skill Sets

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One of my favorite anecdotes comes from one of my brothers. He is a brilliant mathematician and engineer who designed the software for the navigation system of the International Space Station. To reward him for his exceptional work his company thought it would be a good idea to promote him to a managerial position. He had not been doing that type of work for very long when it became apparent to everyone, including him, that his skill set did not include directing and motivating people. He was more than happy to step back into his original position when all parties agreed that the best way to use his talents was in research and innovation, not dealing with people. To the company’s credit they decided to link his improved salary to his actual talents rather than trying to fit him into a one size fits all mold of promotion.

While there are indeed brilliant individuals who seem capable of succeeding at almost any level, most of us are best suited for rather specific types of work. All too often because we are particularly good at one thing, we are encouraged to climb the promotion ladder to test our abilities in other ways. As the Peter Principle notes we often find ourselves in a place where we are somewhat incompetent. This is because, as with my brother, we simply do not possess the needed skills.

In the world of education I knew phenomenal teachers who became rather ordinary administrators and somewhat mediocre teachers who found their niches in administration. The two areas are not mutually exclusive but they do indeed require different kinds of talents, and not everyone has the ability to succeed in both arenas. Sadly not even advanced degrees and training insures that a person will be a great leader.

My mom used to speak glowingly of her boss at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Ironically her department went through a series of managers all of whom flopped. They came in highly touted with doctorates and years of experience, but they had not before attempted to lead and inspire a group of workers. One after another they failed, until finally someone thought to promote from within. The woman who was chosen possessed only an associates degree from a local junior college. What she did have that the previous bosses did not, was a clear understanding of how to encourage people to work to their highest potential. Within weeks she had turned around the morale and the production of the department. She not only outlasted her predecessors, but remained at the helm for years sharing the honors that were bestowed on the group.

I have thought about the phenomenon of finding the best fit for people’s skills with regard to the office of the President of the United States. There is a huge difference between someone who is able to garner votes by dent of personality and someone who actually knows how to be a chief executive. President Trump, for example, has been wildly successful in the world of real estate, but he is not necessarily an exceptional manager. His work has relied on salesmanship, not the quiet day to day process of guiding the ship of a business. A CEO, CFO, head of HR and marketing manager each have very different jobs that require highly specialized skills and talents. So too, the President of our country should be someone with true executive skills, not just someone with great ideas or a charismatic personality. Sometimes that person may not appear to be as dazzling as many of the contenders for that office have been, but in the end they know how to balance all of the moving parts quite well. President Dwight Eisenhower is an excellent example of such a person.

What I’m also quite sure of is that we all too often give far too much credit and blame to our presidents. The fact is that every single situation is complex and subject to so many factors that to lay either congratulations or complaints at the feet of one individual is simplistic. The economy is a great example. For the most part what is happening at any one moment in time is the culmination of many years of particular policies, and yet we blithely blame a president if things go awry and celebrate that person if all is well. In truth what we are witnessing probably resulted more from predecessors than the person in charge of a particular era.

We are also inclined to credit the outcomes of natural disasters to a single president. The very idea of doing so borders on the absurd. Most of the time the damage is determined by the intensity of the natural event as well as the reliability of the infrastructures that local governments have put into place. By the same token the response to such disasters varies from place to place mostly due to how the state and local governments have prepared as well as what kind of attitudes the people in the area have. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a tragedy waiting to happen not because of President Bush, but because of a long history of corruption in the New Orleans government as well as a neglect of infrastructures long in need of repair. What happened there was a travesty having little to do with the national response.

So too was the aftermath of hurricane Harvey a more positive event because the state and local authorities worked together along with the media and the citizens. It was an outpouring of support from thousands upon thousands of citizens that cemented the rebuilding process. It was a can do spirit among the people that made headlines. The fact that President Trump came to town was of little consequence other than his promises of pushing for funding for the victims. Ultimately it was Congress that passed bills to send relief to the city, and even there some lawmakers voted against the efforts but did not receive the bad press that is all too often attributed to a president.

I don’t think any president should either take credit or blame for most of the things that happen in the country. The truth is that there is a long history behind every calamity or success. There is also a reality that the best outcomes derive from sending the people with the appropriate skill sets to do each of the necessary jobs. The president should be someone capable of guiding the ship of state, and encouraging and supporting the individuals and groups who have the know how to get things done well. That’s how it supposed to be.