Friday Puzzler

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman. Via Chuck Hagel.

By Barbara F. Walter

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman. Via Chuck Hagel.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman. Via Chuck Hagel.

A fascinating study was just published in International Organization by four researchers at UCSD. The study presents the results of a set of experiments, one of which included 92 high-level policy elites in the United States. The goal was to see whether different personality traits in these elites – especially patience and strategic skills – affected the types of trade agreements they were willing to support. (These policy elites included former member of Congress, Cabinet members, senior officials at key government departments, and heads of strategy of major corporations.)

The most interesting and puzzling finding had to do with the ability of these policy elites to think strategically.  The researchers found that leaders who were more patient and more strategic tended to do better in negotiations, but they also found that a “sizable number” had no ability to think strategically; they were unable to visualize even two steps down the game.  If these elites were playing chess, they would be trounced by their opponent.

So today’s puzzler is this:  Why would any President or corporation appoint a leader whose strategic skills were so poor?  And how is it possible for such individuals to rise to the highest ranks of corporate and government decision-making?

  1. Perversely it doesn’t appear that humans in general are very good at being strategic. Which is why men like Bismark, and Lincoln stand out in history.

    From my experience in strategic planning for long term business projects, it turns out that the number of permutations of possible results expands factorialily with each possible future step. Which means all you actually need is an end goal that you are willing to adapt changing emerging circumstances to meet.

    i think the only really important thing people miss in this iterative process is that means justify the ends, whereas the ends never justify the means.

  2. My hypothesis: top decision-makers in these organizations are not selected primarily for their decision-making skills. Considerations of social and political currency loom much larger. In other words, it’s who you know (in both directions, toward and away from the choosers) and how well you fit in, not how well you are expected to perform your supposed duties, that mostly determines appointment to these posts.

    1. And if those selecting or appointing government or corporate decision-makers are looking for strategic thinking ability this is probably assessed through a candidate’s history of past achievements, which instead of strategic ability more likely stem from luck, improvisation skills, unrelated management skills, ability to spin or minimize past failures, and so on.

  3. A leader with a strong, privately held strategic sense will be less inclined to hire a strategic thinker and more inclined to hire a person with administrative and people skills. Mr. Hagel was attractive to the President largely because he was a rare independent-minded Republican with unhawkish views much like his own. As ISIS induced Mr. Obama to become more hawkish in the Middle East, Hagel became a fall guy for the shift in policy. Hagel also appears to have become more grumpy, which only accelerated the booting. It will be interesting to see how the Ashton Carter – Barack Obama relationship will evolve over the coming months.

  4. 1) Strategic thinking skills are not sufficient for good policy-making. US policy in Vietnam War was made by people most capable at strategic thinking (Schelling, McNamara) and still it was a disaster, because they lacked substantive knowledge about the Vietnamese people.

    So, a president should hire/listen to people who suck at chess, but still give valuable advice, because they know the issues and other actors in depth.

  5. 2) The way the paper measures strategic thinking is problematic and not convincing. The authors recognize that “the right answer” to the task depends not only the respondent’s strategic skills, but also his/her beliefs about other people in the group.

    The authors wave their hands about this problem and basically I don’t believe that they were able to measure this concept. If that is the case, then there is no puzzle.

  6. Strategic thinking is unrelated to policy-making. After serving as director of policy planning at State, Krasner reflected that policy making is largely a process of ad hoc improvisations, finding ideas in a garbage can and throwing them against a wall.

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