In a recent article in the New York Times (7 December 2008), Frank Rich commented on the cabinet selections of Barack Obama. He pointed out the gold-plated academic pedigrees and intellectual horsepower of the economic team—mainly Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Robert Rubin—and expressed concern that this selection echoed the choices of John F. Kennedy for many of the top jobs in his administration. The latter group was described in the David Halberstam book The Best and the Brightest, an indictment of the “hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam.”
Before his death last year, Halberstam commented that the book's title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.” Rich explains that “the phrase, in its original coinage, was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering note.” In the Kennedy administration, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara were youthful prodigies, the smartest everywhere they went, resulting in platinum-plated resumes—Groton, Yale, Harvard, MIT as students and academic leaders.
In the book, Halberstam makes a clear case that the impressive intellectual horsepower was poisoned by hubris and arrogance that led to the colossal screw-up of Vietnam, which “would destroy the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and inflict grave national wounds that are only now healing.”
Halberstam commented that his favorite passage in the book recalled that Lyndon Johnson, after the first J.F.K. cabinet meeting, raved about the intellect of Kennedy's choices to Sam Rayburn, then Speaker of the House from Texas and Johnson's mentor. Rayburn responded, “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
For Halberstam this story underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “The difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
As I read this story I nodded my head in recognition because I have seen this error made many times in my career… and I have made this error myself. The use of intellect and academic accomplishment as the dominant, even sole, criteria for leadership positions, in the absence of a serious assessment of wisdom, leadership skills, and humility has often led to disasters, major and minor, in academia, industry, the public sector, and in health care.”
In my own career world, the most common error is recruiting a department chairman based almost exclusively on a sparkling C.V. that includes prestigious awards and lots of grants. The assumption is made that if that person can organize an effective research program, he or she could easily run a department. Sometimes that is correct, but when it is not, the fallout does harm to the institution and to those in the ranks who are dependent on the wisdom of the leader to provide guidance and an environment conducive to achievement and a reasonable level of comity.
A similar and even more devastating error is the recruitment of a chairman with credentials as described above who is put in charge of a clinical department but has no substantive interest in or contemporary experience in clinical medicine. The grants look good on the dean's report card, but indifference or downright disrespect for the clinical faculty is transmitted wordlessly by actions, often subtle, that convey those feelings.
Arrogance and hubris are easily detected. This atmosphere depresses morale, and in my own area of oncology, that is especially serious. We oncologists face enough factors that chip away at morale without more coming from our bosses.
But the wisdom Halberstam describes is not so easy to define and is especially difficult to detect prospectively.
Here are a few definitions.
From dictionaries: The ability to discern or judge what is true, right or lasting; insight; common sense; good judgment.
From Wikipedia: Wisdom is knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well towards finding solutions to problems. It is the judicious and purposeful application of knowledge that is valued in society.
Wisdom Is Queen of All Virtues
To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. I would add that wisdom is the queen of all virtues because it encompasses other virtues such as humility and integrity, thoughtfulness and candor.
It is helpful to view expansions of these definitions from different perspectives.
Some researchers in psychology have defined wisdom as the coordination of knowledge and experience and its deliberate use to improve well-being. They describe a wise person as follows:
- A wise person can discern the core of important problems.
- A wise person has self-knowledge [recalling Socrates' admonition to “know thyself”].
- A wise person seems sincere and direct with others [candor].
- Others ask wise people for advice.
- A wise person's actions are consistent with his/her ethical beliefs.
Although these definitions are helpful and wisdom is something all of us may recognize in a colleague, detecting it in advance, in a candidate, for example, is much more difficult. So we often rely on a few measures that can help. We can look for experience, especially the “hard-won, often bitter experience” described by Halberstam and as intuited by Sam Rayburn. By all accounts, running for sheriff in Texas and many other states is often such an experience.
This may be a bit easier if one considers some of the individual features of wisdom as described above, such as humility, candor, and signs of common sense and good judgment. Also, speaking by phone to current and prior colleagues of the candidate (forget letters of recommendation for this purpose) has proved a crucial factor in my recruiting. This is especially effective if one knows the person from whom an assessment is sought. I often ask co-workers if they know anyone well at the candidate's institution and have them make the call.
The specific details of how one gets this information, particularly critical when assessing someone who will have leadership authority, are less important than keeping wisdom firmly in mind throughout the process. Errors in recruiting are more often made by indifference to this key measure than by using the wrong technique; ignoring signs of poor judgment or common sense also happens more often than it should.
Finally, I suspect that Rich's article was virtually finished when he learned that Barack Obama had added Paul Volcker, a seasoned veteran with “hard-won, often bitter experience,” to his economic team; Rich acknowledged the wisdom of this choice at the very end of the article.