The Challenge of Leadership in a Federal Agency.
While not a novel book, Beryl Radin's The Accountable Juggler is a valuable one for reinforcing a number of critical points relative to leadership at the top of a complex and controversial agency. Using her status as a participant-observer in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during 1995 under Secretary Donna Shalala, Radin tried to assess how a secretary juggles a variety of competing values, responsibilities, and constituencies all within the context of very diverse, highly professionalized, and relatively autonomous programs, agencies, and divisions. What is a leader of such an organization to do? That is essentially the question that pervades Radin's short and readable book.
Radin creates a fictitious nominee for the secretary's position (Raymond Wilson, hypothetically a former state health director from California) from whose eyes we may see the choices he will have to make as he prepares for confirmation hearings. Some of the choices are ones common to any top leadership position; others are unique to an organization that is as diverse in its competencies and jurisdictions, as decentralized and controversial in its programs, and as subject to interest group struggles and partisan passions as HHS is. Of course, the HHS secretary might look something like a university provost, who also is confronted with making choices within a context of highly professionalized and autonomous jurisdictions. It may have been the former president of the University of California Clark Kerr's line that a university has a president but a president does not have a university. If so, here is another parallel with an HHS secretary.
The book fundamentally provides a set of choice nodules looming for a prospective department secretary. If there is a road map, the map leads to frequent forks in the road, and as the Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, when you are at a fork in the road, take it. Actually, Yogi may be more right than the fictitious Raymond Wilson. Up to a point, you may have to travel in nonlinear paths, thus in directions that are seemingly contradictory rather than highly consistent. A lot depends on what you want to achieve. Flexibility is built on not making irrevocable decisions; it is, bluntly put, to some degree based on waffling, assuring everyone that their voices will be heard, putting off decisions until the smoke clears, and keeping one's degrees of freedom. It is not exactly the romantic ideal of leadership, but it is a good empirical approximation of what usually happens. A more cynical way of putting this is that decision makers get to be and remain decision makers by not making decisions--or at least by not making them obvious. Making decisions explicit makes enemies, and making too many is a surefire career ender.
Although new leaders usually want to "get control" and centralize as much as they can, it is worth pointing out that centralization is not inherently or even empirically the same as decision making or directional commitment. Leaders most often fear being preempted from choices and having insufficient discretion in the absence of central control. That, rather than a fixed-preference commitment to specific operational goals, is why leaders frequently want to centralize resources (hard to do in HHS or in universities) and monitoring capabilities. Centralization can be seen as a form of hoarding. Leaders do not necessarily want to make decisions at any given moment, but they do want the discretion to be able to make them at their choosing and when the costs and adverse consequences of making them are fewer rather than greater.
As Radin reviews the sorts of choices that the fictitious secretary-designate Wilson has to make, it is remarkable as to not only how little theory we have to go on but how little we have advanced on the problem of leadership since Herbert Simon talked about the classic proverbs of administration (1946. The proverbs of administration. Public Administration Review 6, no. 4:53-67). Or perhaps the problem is how little the public administration community has made use of existing bodies of theory about decision making. On page 4, for example, Secretary-Designate Wilson has a laundry list of leadership lessons (actually written by Secretary Shalala) that is altogether sensible and yet mostly contradictory. The secretarydesignate is told to "stitch together a loyal team" yet also look for allies in unexpected places. First, precisely to what or to whom should the team be loyal? Second, are the unexpected allies on the other side of the ever-deepening party/interest chasm? How can loyalty be accommodated to flexibility of this sort, unless the loyalty is to the leader as a person rather than to the leader's policy plans?
Another leadership lesson is to "set firm goals and priorities and stick with them" (p. 4), while yet a different lesson is that one "should be flexible, be realistic" (p. 4), and so on. How does one do both? It is possible that Machiavelli could have figured it out--and undoubtedly some people know when to hold them and when to fold them and can nest flexible tactics within well-defined strategies, which is what I take to be the maxim here--but no one can learn that from this list. They would have to know such things from experience or instinct. It is clear that the learned lessons have limited coherence as a whole. If you are, for instance, in the middle of an administration set on one direction and relevant congressional committees set on another, your choices as a secretary are suboptimal in the event that you want to be able to remain on decent terms with both.
Later in the book, potential secretaries are advised not to try to add their own personal marks to an already highly institutionalized and path-dependent organization with a high level of professional autonomy. This is probably good advice. However, it is precisely this possibility of making a personal impact that is likely to draw individuals to the job and lead them toward defining priorities to help sort out the more important from the less important choices and risks. In other words, if the individual fails to invest personal commitment, nothing will happen.
In sum, The Accountable Juggler is a readable account of the complex problems and multiple responsibilities of leadership. It is also an equally readable account of the programs, professional qualities, cultures, constituencies, and controversies of HHS and also the vital importance of its programs to the population. The Accountable Juggler is a worthy book at multiple levels--undergraduate and M.P.A. programs, especially--to demonstrate the variety of pressures and choices that the top leader of a complex public sector organization has to face, particularly the leader of a department whose programs are imbued with both great controversy and connection to the well-being of the population and that also frequently pit expert opinion against political ideology.
Three things would be useful that are absent here, however. Read these as an agenda for the future. One is a contingent theory of leadership--too complicated for the purposes of this book--that is based on what we know empirically about leadership behavior. Leaders have extremely limited spans of attentiveness, and they are always facing an inboxoutbox problem. How do they prioritize? Everyone does so either explicitly or more frequently implicitly, on either a fixed preference schedule or, far more likely, an adaptive or incremental one.
How do leaders deal with the commitment/discretion equation? The more they show their cards, the less guessing there will be about what they want--but also the less discretion and flexibility the leader is likely to have farther down the road. The maxim here seems to be that if you are going to write something in stone, then it is probably best to do it in pencil.
How do leaders deal with the human relations problems? In other words, how does one keep the balance among the enthusiastic, the uncommitted, and the alienated? Not everyone will be an enthusiast (and likely no one can be without direction and commitment), but not everyone should be alienated either. Drawing from the managerial practices of baseball teams, the fabled ex--New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel supposedly claimed that his major problem was how to keep the twelve players who had made up their minds about him away from the thirteen that had not yet done so. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the paradoxes of leadership, but I think that it is a good set of questions from which to draw on theories of leadership based on actual decision-making behavior rather than merely asserting what amount to platitudes.
A second item for this future agenda may be to develop more fully the varieties of leadership style in the same role. How do secretaries differ from one another? What are the crucial decisions they make? What is their level of savvy in holding this disparate department together and for making their priorities also presidential ones? What can be systematized here regarding a secretary's background, past behavior, or ability to get off to a good start? What is the difference between reputation and actual accomplishment? Indeed, in this context, what precisely is accomplishment?
A final future agenda item is to look at the secretary's counterpart in other systems. What could that tell us about institutional inducements and constraints? It is true that leadership in top positions in American government requires virtuoso skills. Ministers in other countries, however, find themselves also caught in a vortex of party pressures and coalitions, interest group pressures, and the even greater need to keep civil servants both involved and co-opted. Do institutional differences really make a difference in the leadership problem or only in its surface symptoms?
The Accountable Juggler does not ask these questions, and it surely does not provide answers to them. But it does help to stimulate such questions and to remind us once again that the exercise of leadership is at least as much art form as science. Maybe, therefore, what we clearly need is to see if we can get more science brought to this most neglected yet vital topic.
Bert A. Rockman
The Ohio State University