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Leadership and Innovation: a Biographical Perspective on Entrepreneurs in Government.

Leadership and Innovation: A Biographical Perspective on Entrepreneurs in Government.

James W. Doig, Erwin C. Hargrove, eds. Johns Hopkins University Press, $39.50. Does it make any difference who heads government agencies? Was Ralph Waldo Emerson just whistlin' Dixie when he said, "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man?"

Doig and Hargrove take the cautious view that under optimally favorable circumstances, individuals with entrepreneurial moxie can greatly influence the course of events.

To make their point, they present biographies of 13 government leaders who have had such an impact. Their checklist for effectiveness includes the extent to which the executives identified new programs for their agencies, and developed both external and internal constituencies to support their goal.

The answers are somewhat blurred by the biographies. David Lilienthal successfully made the Tennessee Valley Authority a reality. He roused the people of the valley with soapbox speeches while fighting off lawsuits brought by private utilities. "I'm a fighter," he said. "I enjoyed the controversy . . . conflict is about the only thing that really produces creativity." But in his battles at the TVA, he had the crucial support of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later, as head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lilienthal was generally regarded as ineffective.

Gifford Pinchot was the founding director of the U.S. Forest Service. He too knew the value of publicity: he cultivated magazine editors and tirelessly made speeches to any group that would have him. But it was tough going until his old friend and fellow conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt, became president. Then the Forest Service took off. But when William Howard Taft became president, conflicts developed and Pinchot was fired.

James Forrestal's career abounded in irony: as a forceful secretary of the navy, he opposed unification of the armed forces; then, as the first secretary of defense, he was unable to control the interservice rivalries that he had helped to create because of the weakness he had succeeded in having written into the secretary of defense's role.

The figure whose life and career makes the strongest case for how an iron will can prevail over institutional inertia is Hyman Rickover. Eugene Lewis, who wrote the book's Rickover biography, makes this distinction between entre-preneurs and managers: "Entrepreneurs tend to see opportunity in structural confusion, while managers tend to want to rationalize things so that contradiction and overlap are disposed of by organizational design." Rickover was "task-oriented"--he scorned hierarchical prerogatives in favor of project management in which knowledge, not rank, provided the leadership. (To emphasize that, neither he nor the military officers he worked with wore uniforms, with their proclamations of where one stood in the pecking order.) Inevitably, he alienated the naval bureaucracy: he was passed over for promotion in 1951 and again in 1952--which ordinarily would have meant forced retirement. But Congress had been impressed by Rickover's concern for cost and safety in building nuclear submarines. The Navy backed down and Rickover got his promotion. He knew the importance of cultivating Congress. He created a power base there and in the press-- and on that base he built a nuclear Navy. It would have been built in time even without Rickover, but there is no question that his forcefulness, his emphasis on technical innovation and detail, made it happen sooner. It was truly "Rickover's Navy" because he insisted on choosing the men who manned the nuclear ships.

"Aside from the occasional Rickover figure, who does it by sheer and often obnoxious determination, the two essential ingredients of success for a government entrepreneur seem to be the wholehearted support of the president and the fostering of outside interest groups that stand to benefit from the desired programs. (In the case of Nancy Hanks, the lobbies she created on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts eventually became so strong and so demanding that Hanks found her credibility with Congress undermined by their voracious appetites.)

That the care and feeding of these interest groups may contribute to the fragmentation of America is not the concern of the contributors of this book. Their concern is demonstrating that an unusual individual can have an impact and they make an interesting but not very compelling case. Or, at least, the individual has to be so unusual as to be a pheomenon on the American landscape.
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Author:Reed, Leonard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1988
Words:715
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