In 2003 or 2004, recently retired Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki held a breakfast for Harvard students who participated in MIT’s ROTC program and military veterans at the Kennedy School of Government. At the time, the situation in Iraq was at one of its lowest points, and the General’s famous warning that invading Iraq would require something “on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” was starting to seem very prescient.
However, it was not his commentary on the Iraq War that was most memorable. In fact, he refused to comment on it, because he did not want to send the troops a confused message while they were actively fighting a war.
What I remember most from the breakfast was the General’s humorous description of German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s leadership matrix pictured below.
As the matrix above shows, von Manstein saw industrious and stupid leaders as tbe bane of every organization. According to Henrik Bering, they not only “create irrelevant work for others but” also are “likely to squander the lives of others to further” their own ambitions.
Von Manstein saw lazy and clever leaders as suited for high level management positions because they “are likely to choose the simplest solutions — and hence the easiest to translate into action on the battlefield — and they are good at delegating.”
While I certainly agree with von Manstein’s belief that industrious and stupid leaders can wreak havoc on organizations, I am less inclined to believe that lazy and clever people are the best senior managers. In the 1930s and 40s, von Manstein’s categorization may have been appropriate, but today, in an age of information overload, it is the industrious and clever who are required to navigate through tough times.
In fact, one of the reasons why I believe there is a massive failure of leadership throughout many organizations today, from the Oval Office to many financial institutions, is that most leaders are of the lazy and clever variety. For instance, it is no coincidence that many financial chiefs did not understand the complexities of their derivatives businesses. This superficial understanding of these complex financial instruments likely contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
Contrast this with many of America’s military leaders. For instance, few would argue that the serially successful General Petraeus is a leader of the lazy and clever variety.
Admittedly, von Manstein’s matrix is too simplistic to account for other important aspects of leadership like audacity, decisiveness, and creativity. That said, I still believe the world’s increased complexity has left lazy and clever leaders behind. Those who have remained have left nothing but failure in their wake.