Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 269 | Diciembre 2003



Latin American Leaders: Life Inside the Glass Prison

Although written a decade ago, these reflections offer an insight into Latin America’s government leaders today. Their personality types, their goals and ambitions, the circles of followers surrounding them and their decision-making limitations or skills make it easy to identify Nicaragua’s various incarnations of the breed.

Carlos Matus

The leader is locked in, isolated, prisoner of the indulgent court that controls access to such an important person. But the leader’s prison is made of transparent glass and is well lit. He* is a man with no private life, always on public display. His prison is the comfortable and luxurious government palace, as expansive as a country, but tense, vulnerable and under siege. Inside, the leader’s life takes on the quality of an exhausting and never-ending theatrical performance.

*Translator’s note: The gender pronouns in this article are severely, perhaps even intentionally, biased by the author, reflecting the political reality of government leadership in Latin America, which has only ever seen one woman President—in Nicaragua between 1990 and 1997. We apologize for any discomfort this causes readers, and only hope it is less than a forced “he/she” solution in every sentence would have been.

A full-time actor in his glass prison

The leader is obliged to be perpetually on stage. This tension would be fatal if he could not take sporadic refuge in the intimacy of his dressing room. There he finds a circle of protective friends who offer emotional support and privacy so he can alternate his burdensome work with relaxation, recover from the blinding stage lights of his political representation and shelter in the intimacy provided by this circle in the tenuous soft light of a corner of his glass prison. There, off stage, he stops acting, lets his guard down for a while, but the moment and its duration are not of his making so he must learn to take advantage of it when it comes. The leader only has the most limited control over his time and attention. He is a man besieged by pressures and urgencies.

Before examining the leader’s need for techno-political support, it is important to grasp that while as a human being he recharges his batteries in this intimate circle that protects him from public view, it is also the setting in which he is most forcefully subjected to, most vulnerable to, the opinions that gestate within that circle. The techno-political advice that could help cognitively underpin his conduction is very important, but such cold calculation must compete with the warm emotional support provided by his court. When these contributions are contradictory, he must choose between them, and it’s a tough decision. In the common leader, the court’s warm support tends to win out, whereas in the statesman, the cold calculations of his techno-political advisers are more frequently victorious. There is yet another kind of leader: solitary, diffident and obsessive. He has no court and seeks no advisers, so this struggle over criteria takes place in his own head, his thoughts, as an opposition between passion and reason.

Government capacity,
government project and governance

Leaders are forged in the practical struggle, acquiring their own characteristics from that process and from the political cultural of the social space in which they operate. They are fighters who have felt the ambition to lead from an early age and so choose politics, but their political life evolves in circumstances, opportunities and possibilities outside of their control.

These circumstances often play a decisive role in the selection of leaders. They unexpectedly exalt some and decree an indefinite wait for others who felt equally called to power. And here history springs two surprises: it can create heroes from nothing or bury those with recognized prestige. As leaders are formed primarily by political struggle and its circumstances, their character as conductor, with its attributes and deficiencies, does not necessarily mesh with the problems of government they must deal with. The selection of leaders is part of the power struggle game, while their definitive evaluation is part of the power-exercising game. It is common in democracies to find a leader who is good at winning elections but somewhat incompetent at governing.

A leader’s competence, expertise or capacity to govern is fundamental, as is the influence this has on a particular government’s performance. The impact of the capacity to govern cannot be isolated from the performance of a governing team, since an action’s effectiveness in a concrete situation will likely depend more strongly on two other variables: the government project’s scope and content and the governability that the social system presents and generates in response to attempts to implement that project.

In this effort at change, the government team is conditioned by its skills and capacities, which will be challenged according to the ambitiousness of the government project and the difficulty of change expressed by the system’s governability. In turn, the system’s governability is not removed from the government’s capacity or the extent of the changes included in the government project. The relations among the internal and external political and economic forces that grow up around the government team and its project determine the balance of governability.

In short, it is a triangular system in which government capacity, the government project and governability all influence each other. A government team’s performance depends on these three variables, of which government capacity is only one.

The rules of the political game

Government capacity is a very special kind of intellectual capital that is not mechanically related to a country’s educational or cultural level, the quality of its universities and professionals or the mean intelligence of its population. It is common in Latin America to observe countries with a good educational level, good universities, good professionals and an intelligent and educated population that have a low government capacity.

The rules of the political-institutional game define how much room there is for variety in which leaders can develop their abilities, accumulate expertise and create a certain capacity for government that will be either necessary or superfluous in political practice. These rules can reward or chastise improvisation, expediency, a patronage system, deceit, corruption, ineffectiveness in dealing with major problems, lack of creativity and irresponsibility toward the constituent population. They can also emphasize electoral expertise more than government expertise, personal performance more than social efficacy and responses in reaction to the moment and the current situation more than those taken as part of the greater social project.

Citizens get to elect governors
but not to evaluate them or to participate

Government capacity develops only if it is necessary and functional to the rules of the political game. What lies behind the low government capacity in Latin America is a crisis in the style of conducting politics, which gives the citizenry an opportunity to elect those who will govern, but denies it the capacity to evaluate them periodically and to participate in government administration. This political style feeds off various historic antecedents and is manifested in the characteristics of leadership, which reproduces the rules of the political game and thus hinders any possibilities of elevating government capacity.

The crisis worsens as the main problems are aggravated and the act of governing becomes dissociated from efforts to deal with them. It would seem that the great problems are considered inevitable, part of the landscape. But the population does not easily resign itself to its governors’ incapacity; because it cannot differentiate between governance and government capacity, it repudiates the traditional political parties and their leaders, increasingly seeking new personal leaders. Democracy is not sufficiently efficacious to protect itself and its future is in danger. What’s happening to our leaders? Why aren’t they correctly interpreting the message?

Overburdened with work and tensions

It is useful to distinguish between the personal characteristics of leaders and the institutional characteristics of leadership positions, as well as between the government’s personal and institutional capacities.

Leadership positions condition a leader’s practice and personality because they involve assuming a representation and moving into the glass prison. They also generate very common practical processes that end up affecting the very formation of the leader’s character, independent of his personality. Leadership positions have various common characteristics:

Quantitatively excessive work. A large part of leaders’ time and energy are taken up by myriad routine, ritual and intermediate tasks. Their schedules are always overflowing. Without considering the symbolic activities in the top spheres of a Latin American central government, three thousand decisions are taken in an average month, distributed as follows: 5 very important ones, 45 important ones, 300 significant ones and 2,650 routine ones. But all these decisions compete with almost equal weight for a leader’s time.

This work overload is influenced by an essential characteristic of the political process: leadership is fleeting and the leader is always in danger of being edged out. The leader must thus invest a significant amount of time in activities that have to do with maintaining his leadership position. The political fight does not end once he has moved into the top government post. On the contrary, its requirements increase. The leader must deal with many intermediary problems that the population neither senses nor values. For the leader, however, effective action in response to such problems is an indispensable investment to ensure the constant renewal of his threatened leadership.

Qualitatively excessive work. This derives from poorly structured or quasi-structured complex and always new problems that the leader must face without adequate knowledge, pressed for time and in conditions of situational tension. The leader must decide many things about which he knows little or nothing. This is particularly exhausting in highly centralized systems.

Subjection to strong situational tension. The repetitiveness of anguishing conditions, responsibility and tension creates dangerous possibilities of erring during crises, where one inevitably must decide on the spot under conditions of extreme tension, emotional imbalance, danger, anxiety and, at times, loss of control over time. The leader is exposed to making panic decisions, either “fleeing forward,” which is a dangerous type of extremism, or withdrawing in chaos, unnecessarily abandoning objectives, underutilizing accumulated power, caving in to circumstances, further confusing the course of actions, taking refuge in passivity in the hope that the problems will solve themselves, etc.

Limitations on normal life. Fawning protection and the exercise of corridor power subject the leader to constant pressure from others to gain access to him. Fawning protection is a response to the pressure for access, but although it appears as control over doors, it essentially operates as control over his mind. Through it, the leader loses part of his ability to experience and directly perceive reality, a limitation that is defectively compensated for with reports and appraisals from his most intimate circle. Fawning protection thus distorts the leader’s own appreciation of the situation and conditions the enumeration of possible courses of action.

Tendency to misuse his time and attention. This reinforces the previous problem, because the leader feels that the formality of planning his time according to a schedule traps him and reduces his free time. Formal schedules contain little of importance and much that is urgent, a relationship that is even more marked in a real schedule.

Manipulated and limited,
prisoner of pomp and ritual

Buttressing the defects and errors. The coterie, the adulators, the need for an intimate circle, respect for and fear of the leader, loyal but sick devotion, the competition to serve him, the fight for his ear, servile opportunism, etc., are just some of the causes of a process that buttresses defects and errors. Instead of developing his capacity to correct them while it is still possible, time intensifies the incapacity for self-correction of a leader surrounded by flatterers and protected by a filter that closes off his opponents’ supposedly self-interested critiques. The President must be shielded from vexations, so court buffoons are needed and welcome. Sincere critics do not last long at the leader’s side. This distances him from reality and distorts his vision insofar as it inflates his own self-esteem.

Leaders tend to be conceited and proud and need to be bolstered by flattery, which is a very curious characteristic of leadership positions, since political leaders are conscious of it and cannot allege that they are ignorant victims. One of the most corrupt popes of the Catholic Church’s black period, Alexander VI, a Borgia of the 15th century, told an assembly of bishops: “The greatest danger for any pope lies in the fact that, fenced in as he is by flatterers, he never hears truths about himself and ends up not wanting to hear them.” And Alexander VI, mind you, was fairly characterized as depraved, venal and deaf to any hint of criticism. If we accept his words, and many other similar comments that history offers us, we must conclude that not even the most intelligent leaders can escape the blindness of power as a particular and acute form of situational blindness.

Manipulation toward restricted options. Leaders are generally limited to learning about very few options, which are often geared to more of the same. Barbara Tuchman, in her excellent book March of Folly, from Troy to Vietnam (1984), comments that the folly present in the many government experiences she examines belongs to the category of “self-imprisonment of the argument: we have no other choice.” The argument that there is no alternative is a constant in Latin American political history to defend an ineffective or inefficient plan.

Prisoners of pomp and ritual. They end up wrapping themselves in complacent and gratifying comfort and creating themselves in that surrounding, which hyper-bolsters their ego and increases the distortion of their visions. The glass prison is comfortable and agreeable, but the view from the outside in is not the same reality as the view from the inside out. The glass prison not only deforms the images of reality, but also the values with which the leader observes it. The ethics of power is different from the ethics of opposition or the ethics of the common citizen.

Hypertrophy of his security and trust in his experience. These characteristics lead him to reinforce his pragmatism and devalue professional advice. The importance of his post leads to a hyper-valuing of experience dissociated from the intellectual capital by which it is accumulated. But the post’s importance does not compensate for the difference of intellectual capital with which it is exercised. It is common for the leader to suffer from the victor syndrome, which leads to a sometimes baseless confidence in the superiority of his abilities.

Limitations of Personality and time

Limited capacity to discern. Leaders appear to have limited capacity for profoundly discerning the qualities and deficiencies of the technical teams on which they must rely. A leader can only qualify his technical collaborators according to indirect references and public visions of prestige. He has a propensity to put more stock in loyalty than capacity, which is combined with a leaning for the patient-doctor relation, which moves him to put all his confidence in others when it comes to problems he knows nothing about. In Latin America, the leader’s relationship with his technical experts tends to be one of faith and credibility rather than a synergistic interaction of experiences and knowledge and of politics and technique.

Limited time to show effectiveness. A leader’s term of office is too short for problems that require long-term solutions, particularly when he or his team is short on capacities. This is particularly true in democracies, where a governor’s transitory position is exercised in periods that are too brief to provide continuity to good government, if indeed that is the goal. At times, the reverse occurs with a bad government, in which the population would like to see it out before its time. The first case harms the effectiveness of the decision-making process, since the ruler is discouraged from undertaking the kind of huge projects with long maturity periods needed to deal with great problems, and his capacity to make government an effective learning experience is limited. In the second case, correction comes more slowly, since it is necessary to wait for a new government before redefining the plans.

It should also be stressed here that the value of time in leadership positions is different at the start of the government term than at the end. A week in the first month of government is worth several months at the tail end, thus squandering the first six months can make the difference between success and failure. Unfortunately, conductors tend to think seriously about their government plans only after they’ve gotten past the difficulties of the electoral campaign. It’s as if they can’t think about the electoral strategy and the governing strategy at the same time. This difficulty in combining both strategies during the campaign responds to an old and deeply rooted method of conducting politics in Latin America, in which the electoral period is almost completely disassociated from the governing period. This produces a kind of theatrical simulation during the campaign that borders on political cynicism.

Information, teamwork and
the temptation of corruption

The weight of responsibility and the buffering of information. These two realities make the leader afraid to innovate, thus reinforcing the tendency to seek refuge in the current of dominant opinion. While at least minimal consensus becomes the safest rule of conduct to minimize the flanks of attack, it is at the same time the measure of mediocrity. Creativity and innovation appear likely to produce social ridicule or at the very least an unnecessary and potentially costly risk of experimentation. Indecision mounts in proportion to the importance of the decisions and the value of the problems. Fear of innovating consequently leads to ignoring major problems, transforming them into part of the social landscape. That is why leadership positions, with notable exceptions, unfortunately tend to turn into an administering of the status quo.

Difficulty working with others. Working in a team is very difficult and uncomfortable if we’re talking of groups of more than seven or eight people who have different vocabularies or personalities, respond to a variety of interests and/or have differing intellectual or professional preparation that generates conflicting visions.

This is illustrated by Stephen Wayne, author of The United States and Advising the Rulers, who notes that ever since Franklin Roosevelt, US Presidents have preferred dealing with their Cabinet members one on one. The difficulty of working as a team seems to have exceeded even the recognized strength of will of President Jimmy Carter, who according to Wayne had the following record: one Cabinet meeting a week the first year, one every week and a half the second year, one a month the third year, and only occasionally the fourth year.

In Latin America, the formality of Cabinet sessions is generally respected, but genuinely important problems are dealt with in small, more homogenous groups, outside of the Council of Ministers. It’s another way to sidestep teamwork.

The temptation of corruption. A leadership position offers the possibility of abusing power and using one’s public position for personal benefit. When the social system relegates ethical values and suffers an ideological vacuum, man seeks to satisfy his own most primary needs without the guide of higher objectives. High leadership positions are subjected to control and at times to the fear of social sanction, which restrains abuse. But these positions also provide access to a large variety of valuable public resources and magnify the temptation of economic enrichment, political despotism and social arbitrariness. If the social control is lax and sometimes complicit, the leader tends to be overcome by the temptation of personal benefit, especially if his intellectual capital is wanting. The criteria of personal benefit can end up dominating the national or social criteria. The leader flips between temptation and duty.

Three personality types

Still-aspiring leaders, whose personality has not yet suffered the impact of the exercise of higher power, have uncommon characteristics. The word leader, however, hides very different and complex personalities. Napoleon’s leadership was very different from that of Adenauer and Attila’s very different from Gandhi’s. Circumstances, culture and period influence these differences, but so do complex elements related to the very formation of personality. In Latin America, Fidel Castro’s governing style has little in common with Daniel Ortega’s, and Ortega’s was very different from that of Alfonsín in Argentina or Sarney in Brazil. There are leaders who don’t seem like leaders and others who act their part in an overbearing manner.

The task of characterizing the personality of leaders will always produce caricatures, but that cannot be used a justification to avoid addressing the issue. Conscious of caricaturizing, we’ll use a pure typology that permits a great variety of combinations and dosages in the creation of the real personality of three types of leaders: the transforming leader, the administrating leader and the leader with only a personal project. Many of the characteristics of the post itself affect these three pure types similarly, but this homogenizing effect does not fully compensate for their marked personality differences.

The transforming leader

The transforming leader is dominating, aggressive and inexhaustible, characterized by a sharp rejection of the past and a blurred distinction between strategic boldness and adventurism. Transforming leaders are charismatic men of superior intelligence, but subject to serious situational blindness. They generally have a very well developed ego that at times takes on sick qualities. They suffer from an inclination toward triumphalism, bureaucratic centralism and exaggerated ideologism. They concentrate rather than delegate decisions and refuse to be advised. They are strong, dominant and haughty, partially deaf and never admit errors or demand council. They can justify everything through the actions of their opponents or the errors of their collaborators.

They have a tremendous capacity to create the enemies and friends they need to govern at a given moment. They are normally trapped between choosing political trust to strengthen the progress of the change they seek and the techno-political capacity needed to make the transformation process less costly and disorganized. They are off-track locomotives plowing new paths and pulling the situational change along at a speed that even the most modern planning system cannot keep up with. They are thus great disorganizers-organizers, but given their centralized decisions, they disorganize at a greater velocity than they can organize, at least in the first stage. They delegate nothing in this transitory process of chaotic disorganization, but also assume none of their own errors and have little capacity to correct them.

They are often better strategists than the best of their advisers, which strengthens their autonomy and their practice of making calculations in isolation. These are men who forcefully create or embrace ideologies and are led by them into excess voluntarism, such that their reflections are dominated by normative considerations—values, beliefs, religious dogmas, etc.—over and above prescriptive ones—the sciences. This same faith leads them to attempt to impose their beliefs. They feel the need to do good, by force, for the majorities left behind in the process, whom they also believe to lack the ability to comprehend the leader’s project.

The transforming leader wants to go down in history and feels he has the necessary strength to make critical and tragic decisions. He has the cold ability to put the life and sacrifice of other men or all of society at his disposal, because he feels called upon to fulfill an historic task and because he too shares all the risks. When this transforming leader not only manages to stay in power but is also efficient and effective at achieving the results he promises, we find ourselves in the presence of a great statesman who leaves his mark on social time. As a counterpart to his successes, he is also capable of committing errors of an historic magnitude proportional to the greatness of his dreams. Paradoxically, these transforming leaders lose their notion of time and become conservative as they age due to their inability to accompany the evolution of the social process.

The administrating leader

The administrating leader is pragmatic, gradualist and leery of ideologies. To continue the locomotive analogy, he is like the “little engine that could,” slower, content with the existing rails, but incredibly persevering. He does not create directorship but is a good manager of it. He has a well-developed and competitive ego, is as personalistic as the transforming leader, but rather than feeling called upon to make history, he feels that his mission is to administer situations, to continue along the same proven and safe tracks. He doesn’t question the rules of the game but concerns himself with ensuring its smooth development.

He abhors chaos and disorder as much as he values efficiency. He doesn’t attempt great things, only wanting the existing situation to get better and, in the worst of cases, not to deteriorate and endanger the continuity of gradual progress. His responsibility tends to lean more toward party than nation. He is by nature more satisfied by the narcissism of power than by great accomplishments. At one extreme, he can be a skilled conductor of gradual, moderate, surefooted, serious, persevering and cautious change, a person able to produce social progress. At the other, he can be out of sync with the times, dragged along by circumstances. In both cases, he does not go after the great and critical decisions and abhors tragic ones.

The leader with no social project

The leader without a social project is a great individualist, guided instead by a personal project. He wants power simply because he loves it. He only thinks about his personal project and delegates the design of the government project needed to make it viable. He is generally an expert in micro-politics, has a good grasp of human frailties and efficiently uses political patronage. He is ambitious and egocentric, thrives on formalities and commonplaces, is skillful in electoral races and in public relations and adjusts his lax morality to the realistic needs of the public political battle. He accepts men as they are and does not judge them; he just uses them.

He is a strong swimmer in the political sea, but always goes with the dominant current. His intellectual capital is generally poor, but he compensates for that deficiency with astuteness, quick-wittedness, mental agility and a sense of opportunity. He is an utter pragmatic, disinterested in ideological debate, but with a huge practical sense of action in which his calculations are always related to the immediate profitability of the options before him. He flees precise declarations, taking refuge in ambiguity to keep a foot in whatever political space he perceives as having the greatest possibilities.

Leaders in or out of their times

At times, the social system produces the leaders it needs for a given situation, while at others it does so too late or too early. In light of this contradiction, we should remember Marx’s statement that men make history but not in the circumstances of their choosing. We thus end up with leaders who seek revolution in periods of prosperity, and administrators who steer a gradualist course even though the system’s possibilities for progress are exhausted. History offers us innovative leaders with no chance to innovate and a dearth of transforming leaders during declining situations that cry out for innovation. In certain circumstances, albeit transitory ones, the system finds its own dynamic, independent of the political leadership. But whether sooner or later, the leaders or the forces led by them take command of the process and exploit the opportunities opened up by the social system.

The good administrator’s leadership, and even more so that of the great transformer, acts as a locomotive of history. The great social changes have always been guided, often even dragged kicking and screaming, by personal leadership, sometimes in the form of abrupt and rapid leaps in history and at others as the persevering and less spectacular result of slow and effective gradualism.

Bold and visionary leadership:
adventure plus prudence

The powerful leader is not necessarily audacious, nor is the weak leader always prudent or conservative. Where is the line between boldness and adventurism, and between prudence and passivity? These important questions have no precise answers.

Three variables come together in the boldness or prudence of a strategy. The first is the scope of the project undertaken, the second the project’s dose of innovation in relation to its solidity, and the third the relation between these two and the weight of the leader undertaking the project. His weight in turn has to do with his capacities (intellectual and experiential capital, energy and reputation), the resources he controls (in the state or the party), his outside support (that of the international community), the rank-and-file and social backing he enjoys, and the seal of approval of important personalities.

The greatest audacity comes when the leader commits to a huge and innovative project despite having a relationship of weakness with respect to the opposing positions. In contrast, the greatest prudence implies underutilizing his accumulated weight by undertaking only modest and already proven projects. But to return to the question, when does audacity turn into adventurism? And when does prudence become passivity?

The beginning of an answer could be this: adventurism is undertaking a conflictive and innovative plan or project that requires not only greater power than the leader has accumulated, but also more than he can additionally stir up at that particular moment, thus rendering the plan or project unviable. Boldness, on the other hand, is undertaking a conflictive and innovative plan or project that requires more resources than the leader has accumulated, but that can be attained by exploiting the moment. In such circumstances, his patrimony of power grows thanks to the project’s own impact on society. Boldness is generally correlated with insufficient support from the social forces and strong adhesion by the unorganized population. Prudence and passivity can be explained with the inverse criteria.

The eight who serve the leader

The leader needs those who serve and vice versa. The adviser, the friend, the master of ceremonies, the manservant, the buffoon, the bodyguard, the informer and the assistant all have their role to play within the glass prison.

The adviser offers the support of cold situational calculations. He is the leader’s cognitive source. The friend (male or female) offers the loyalty and emotional support that all human beings need. The master of ceremonies is in charge of the rituals involved in being on stage. The manservant humbly and with total dedication assumes the routine tasks, and at times the dirty ones. The buffoon is responsible for wit, humor and the limited amusement permitted by the glass prison. The bodyguard protects the leader and sees to it that no one gets into the glass prison unless he or the others in service approve. The informer gives him access to confidences and verifies relevant facts so he can forecast, decide, threaten, negotiate with or shunt any dangers. The assistant is on call to help him in all tasks generated by the process of dealing with problems and concentrates on promoting the actions that the leader personally reserves for himself.

These eight functions have a common characteristic: they are all positions of trust and of unequal interaction between he who serves and he who leads. All depend more on the leader than the leader depends on them. They cannot act if they lose his trust, and trust depends more on pleasing than on being effective. To some degree, all must employ flattery, with varying degrees of moderation.

Critical servants are disagreeable and rapidly lose their jobs or isolate themselves from the more complacent. The principal thing is that the techno-political adviser must compete for attention and time with the friend, the master of ceremonies, the buffoon, the bodyguard, the informer and the assistant. All are sources of information for the governor and offer their counsel, but they value or devalue the communication channel they represent according to the role they play for the leader. Thus, while the governor’s techno-political team has to win the post of adviser, it can never aspire to be the only source of counsel for the governor in his crystal palace.

Each servant guards a different door

Each of these eight servants guards a drawbridge and its corresponding door. The palace has very few drawbridges and each is important. The adviser takes care of the door of advice but must compete with the other doors through which squeeze gossip, conversations and information disguised as proposals for action. The friend guards the door of affection, which also hides advice. The master of ceremonies guards the door that could be opened to intruders, which involves jealously protecting the leader’s appointment calendar. The manservant deals with the door of routines and minor logistics. The buffoon is a special friend, always genuflecting, without pretensions or ambitions, who sees to the door of rest and relaxation in a vaguely defined position that permits him to be at all doors without being called intrusive. The bodyguard is in charge of the security door and thus has the key to all others, but keeps a low profile. The informer, the almost invisible servant, monitors the information doors and passes his intelligence analysis to the adviser. The assistant is the ant that works in the shadows, without immediate ambitions for political recognition. In the absence of an advisory system or techno-political team, the leader will value the advice that comes to him from diverse sources according to the value of the drawbridge the proponent uses.

Technicians argue that studies and recommendations have intrinsic value on their own technical merits. But that is a rationalist illusion that has no place in the crystal palace. The leader neither is nor can be an expert, so he cannot value the content of the technical counsel on a given proposal. He can only trust the credibility or weight of the subject or group backing it, so the technical value of that counsel is multiplied by the value of the communication channel utilized. If the communication channel’s value is zero, the advice is worthless. This explains the apparent irrationality of decision-making in the top echelons. At times the baseless opinion of an important figure who has access to a good drawbridge, randomly tossed out at a lunch with the President, carries more weight than five years of study by a planning team. This was demonstrated in the following quote from one of President Kennedy’s aides: “If you were part of the strongest group, you got the best concessions. When no compromise could be achieved, the largest coalition, or better said the strongest one, had to win. That was frustrating. Arguments meant nothing if they came from a minority, unless that minority included Jackie Kennedy.”

Weaknesses at decision-making time

The decision-making systems that prevail in the leadership positions, partly influenced by groupism and buddyism, are the same ones characterizing any directive function. But in this case, the defects are increased by the court’s notoriety, isolation and solitude. The weaknesses in the decision-making modes interact synergistically with the leader’s already mentioned defects. Such weaknesses include:

Incompetence or lack of expertise. Leaders often lack the knowledge and skills needed to govern well. In many cases, they could supply these capacities by selecting appropriate teams from people available in their country, but their own limitations often prevent them from valuing those within their reach and choosing well among them. The most common deficiencies among leaders include ignorance of the economy, of organizational techniques, of decision-making protocols and of methods of strategic planning, monitoring and analysis, just to mention those with the greatest impact on their performance. To this is added a certain insensitivity, influenced by the arrogance of pragmatism and the hyper-valuing of their own experience, which keeps them from grasping these deficiencies and correcting them. In the few cases in which they are self-diagnosed, they add negative weight to the pressures resulting from time, predispositions, gaps in the formation of their intellectual capital and situational blindness For these reasons, it is very hard for a leader to acquire the knowledge he lacks during the exercise of government. When adding to this the above-mentioned limitations generated by the surroundings, it becomes clear that the leader has little incentive to learn. Nonetheless, there are leaders who grow while in power because they have a high learning capacity due to the value of their intellectual capital.

Situational blindness. Situational blindness is normal in all men, but it is overdeveloped in leaders due to the very conditions required by the gestation and maintenance of leadership. In addition, the leader is always in the line of fire, in heated situations that strongly limit cold reasoning. In effect, the leader is often imbued with strong feelings, needs, desires, emotions, expectations, fears, rancor, dislikes as well as a whole other variety of effective strengths. He prizes these heated situations, which at times deteriorates the quality of his performance.

At other times, in contrast, this situational blindness is the fanatical force that allows a leader to ignore all calculations of possibilities and achieve the impossible, for better or worse. We should include among the sources of situational blindness a limited attention span, rigid preconceptions, difficulty putting himself in the other’s shoes, a limited vocabulary, a certain incapacity to visualize future problems, the cognitive dissonance that suppresses painful information, information overload, etc.

Distortions of human reason. The human mind and reasoning suffer various internally constructed propensities that can lead to error. Three of these are circumstantial impressionism, understood as the proclivity to overvalue weak but notable or salient pieces of evidence; the conditioning of the search for solutions to an analytical framework that mechanically replicates previous causalities (in 1975, when we controlled x variable, z variable went out of control, so I mustn’t do that today unless I want to pay the same price); and obstinate, persistent clinging to a solution once decided, even when it is contradicted by important new evidence.

These three distortions have been thoroughly studied. The mind’s propensity for error when faced with uncertainty is particularly malignant for leaders, since it moves them to unjustified beliefs or fears that inhibit timely action or trigger inopportune or precipitous reactions. It can also lead to mechanical reasoning that unjustifiably limits the possibility of finding a solution, and to an inability to correct errors.

Addressing urgencies,
neglecting what’s important

The monitoring of decision-making systems focuses on strident or painful quarrels but does not fully detect the important things that go wrong silently. To a degree, this monitoring has the same weaknesses as market signals. A strike attracts more attention, time and reflection by leaders because it is very concrete and causes immediate problems, and because they have experience in handling such events. In contrast, their country’s relative loss of weight as a result of world technological development is a problem that isn’t producing pain now; its causes, manifestations and consequences are somewhat confusing and the leaders generally lack any clear idea of how to deal with it. It’s like the person who, motivated by a bothersome and insistent itching, immediately has an annoying skin allergy seen to, but fails to deal with his life-threatening diabetes because it doesn’t set off painful alarm warnings.

Similarly, the social system’s alarm signals are triggered not by importance but by the immediate annoyances that are expressed as urgencies. We address major problems only when they become aggravated to the extreme of demonstrating recognizable symptoms. By doing the same thing, the decision-making systems focus attention on the urgencies and neglect what’s important.

Carlos Matus was minister of economy in Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile. This text is taken from his article “El líder sin Estado Mayor,” which appeared in the Altadir Foundation’s publication Planeación Estratégica Situacional, Bogota, Colombia, November 1992.

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