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Judith Ellis Headshot

Dullness: A Euphemism for Status Quo

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While I sometimes appreciate New York Times columnist David Brooks' opinions, I think he misses some very important points in a recent New York Times article, In Praise of Dullness." Based on a study, "Which C.E.O. Characterisitcs and Abilities Matter?", by Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen, Brooks suggests that listening and communication are overrated and that never has/shall the twine mix successfully, as one is about execution and the other merely about charm and ideas. He distinguishes between the politicians and the business leaders with regards to execution. By the way, not once while reading the article did I picture women business leaders. Hmm? I wonder why?

There need not be a separation between ideas and execution and there also need not be not be a specific model from which every CEO is hewed. Personalities matter and there are as many diverse personalities in this position as there are people. In fact, person is the root of personalities. While the core characteristics of any venture, government or business, is execution, ideas on how it is done is what allows for execution, even when the CEO ultimately makes the decision on how things are done. Listening and communication are essential in our time especially.

Brooks seems to be writing about CEOs that had not been a part of the information age by and large. It was a different era. While the basics of business have not changed i.e., "execution and organizational skills, attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours," the way in which these things are done within a global market, if not more than the necessary communication with others globally, has changed. It's a global market and a CEO better be listening and communicating, not only to his teams but to others outside of them, and these team members better be listening to each other and the general public. Business has never been done in a vacuum.

Brooks' opinion also does not take into account small business owners who are the backbone of this economy. These business owners rely on communication with their staff and clients, -- to them listening is paramount. These also build community in ways that big business does not and where perhaps a lack of communication and listening on some levels is not as paramount. (Maybe the lack of such has been the downfall of community in some sense. Or, perhaps it is being somewhat redefined.) But it is not an either/or situation -- to listen or not in this age. It is the only solution. The past environment may have lend itself to a more centralized power structure where all people thought alike and a diversity of input was not as welcoming. But this is an altogether new global technological age and how we communicate and listen is more important than ever.

It's funny. Brooks says that "business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leader possess precisely those talents -- charisma, charm, personal skills -- that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution." Hmm? I wonder about the correlation between Mr. Cheney and Halliburton here, Washington and corporate execution. This solitary image utterly defies what Brooks has written. Cheney was a CEO, Vice-President, horrid listener by all accounts, and lacked communication skills. He left the country in a big mess . According to Brooks' standard an opposite Washington type would be a more hard-line non-communicative dictatorial type like the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But just look at where his leadership in Iraq left us before the thoughtful more communicative current Defense Secretary Dr. Robert Gates.

Brooks and his ilk also like to pretend that there is some big separation between government and big business when in reality they have been in bed for years. Can you say Halliburton -- now KBR? (It's the same business different name.) There need not be a disconnection between ideas and execution, government and business in this regard. In fact, government allowed big business to prosper. It was a union of sorts. Without such there would have been no roads and highways, for example, which enabled Ford, Firestone and Edison to prosper in their business ventures of cars, wheels and street lights. But we have to demand of our public officials on all levels, local and national and be active citizens in our government. We need to hold them accountable. The big problem is self-interest in government and big business.

Opining the death of CEOs' control as he sees it, as if they have not been culpable in the current mess and not in need of imposed regulation as they seem unable to regulate themselves, Brooks writes: "We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won't be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.'s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge." Does this not sound like there have been no culpability with the likes of CEOs in finance and the auto industry? This statement is utterly asinine from this perspective.

Brooks makes this statement: "People in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business." Tell that to Arianna Huffington! "It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success," he continues. Can you say Ayn Rand? Hmm? Two communicative women? The problem with David Brooks here is that his views are narrow; he also apparently cannot possibly conceive of women in his neat dull scenario. Brooks seems to be trying to hold on to a crumbling all white male CEO image that he has become accustomed to writing about rooted in political ideology that limits both perspective and reality. Tom Peters' book In Search of Excellence lists as many diverse CEO personalities as there are successes. And that was over 25 years ago!