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Leadership in organizations people believe in

2012 September 11
by Ian Welsh

The assassination strategy the US pursues is interesting, not in what it says about the US’s foes, but what it says about the US’s leaders.  Al-Qaeda’s “#2” man has been “killed” so often that it’s a running joke, and Taliban leadership is regularly killed by assassination.  Bush did this, Obama really, really does this.  Probably a lot of them are BS, but it’s probably safe to assume that a lot of leadership is killed.

The Taliban is still kicking the coalition’s ass.

Leadership isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be, IF you have a vibrant organization people believe in.  New people step up, and they’re competent enough.  Genius leadership is very rare, and a good organization doesn’t need it, though it’s welcome when it exists.  As long as the organization knows what it’s supposed to do (kick Americans out of Afghanistan) and everyone’s motivated to do that, leadership doesn’t need to be especially great, but it will be generally competent, because the people in the organization will make it so.

American leaders are obsessed with leadership because they lead organizations where no one believes in the organization’s goals.  Or rather, they lead organizations where everyone knows the leadership doesn’t believe in its ostensible goals.  Schools are lead by people who hate teachers and want to privatize schools to make profit.  The US is lead by men who don’t believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  Police are lead by men who think their job is to protect the few and beat down the many, not to protect and serve.  Corporations  make fancy mission statements and talk about valuing employees and customers, but they just want to make a buck and will fuck anyone, employee or customer, below the c-suite.  They don’t have a “mission” (making money is not a mission, it’s a hunger if it’s all you want to do), they are parasites and they know it.

Making organizations work if they’re filled with people who don’t believe in the organization, who believe that the “leadership” is only out for themselves and has no mission beyond helping themselves, not even enriching the employees or shareholders, is actually hard.  People don’t get inspired by making the c-suite rich.  Bureaucrats, knowing they are despised and distrusted by their political matters, and knowing that they aren’t allowed to do their ostensible job, as with the EPA generally not being allowed to protect the environment, the DOJ not being allowed to prosecute powerful monied crooks and the FDA being the slave of drug companies and the whims of politically connected appointees, are hard to move, hard to motivate, hard to get to do anything but the minimum.

So American leaders, and indeed the leaders of most developed nations think they’re something special.  Getting people to do anything, and convincing people to do the wrong thing, when they joined to actually teach, protect the environment, make citizens healthier or actually prosecute crooks is difficult.  Being a leader in the West, even though it comes with virtually complete immunity for committing crimes against humanity, violating civil rights, or stealing billions from ordinary citizens, is in many respects a drag.  A very very well paying drag, but a drag.  Very few people have the necessary flexible morals and ability to motivate employees through coercion required.

So American leaders in specific and Westerners in general think that organizations will fall apart if the very small number of people who can actually lead, stop.  But that’s because they think that leading the Taliban, say, is like leading an American company or the American government.  They think it requires a soulless prevaricator who takes advantage of and abuses virtually everyone and is still able to get them to, reluctantly, do their jobs.

Functioning organizations aren’t like that.  They suck leadership upwards. Virtually everyone is being groomed for leadership and is ready for leadership.  They believe in the cause, they know what to do, they’re involved.  And they aren’t scared of dying, if they really believe.  Oh sure, they’d rather not, but it won’t stop them from stepping up.

So Obama kills and kills and kills and somehow the Taliban is still kicking his ass.  Al-Qaeda in whatever country you care to name has its #2 killed every few weeks, and somehow there’s always another one.  Because these people believe.  There’s always another believer, if it’s a functioning organization, and on it goes.

The declaration of the Haqqani network as terrorists made me laugh.  You read about them, and this is what you discover–the founder was a minister in the Taliban government.  So, let’s get this straight.  His country, which he is a minister in, is invaded, and 10 years later he’s still fighting.  And he refuses to negotiate with the US, because hey, he figures he’s winning.

Imagine if the US was invaded, occupied and a puppet government was set up.  A cabinet minister escaped, went underground, and set up a resistance network.  What would you call him?  A terrorist?  Sure, if you’re the occupying power.  If you’re a citizen?  Well, maybe not, eh?  Sure he fights nasty, but the nation which kills so many civilians with drones can’t really cast the first stone, can it?

And one day, they’ll probably kill him.

And it won’t make any damn difference.

25 Responses
  1. September 11, 2012

    “Bureaucrats, knowing they are despised and distrusted by their political ma[s]ters, and knowing that they aren’t allowed to do their ostensible job, as with the EPA generally not being allowed to protect the environment, the DOJ not being allowed to prosecute powerful monied crooks and the FDA being the slave of drug companies and the whims of politically connected appointees, are hard to move, hard to motivate, hard to get to do anything but the minimum.”

    That last part is all wrong. People will do more than the minimum, but what you get in the federal government is quotas you are measured on. They constantly want you to do more with less, while at the same time setting you up for failure, making you jump thru more and more hoops before taking effective actions so that it becomes almost impossible to accomplish in the timeframes given. So if you are in some kind of enforcement, you may end up essentially doing catch and release work, where you and/or your organization are measured on the catching part, but your overall effectiveness isn’t measured, so no one really notices or minds that your efforts are just a little slap on the wrist at worst. You work more and more cases, thus “touching” more of the target industry or group, and supposedly that makes them feel like they better watch their steps. But the reality is that once they see what ineffective pushovers the government agencies are, it really just emboldens them to flout the laws and regulations even more.
    Of course the antigovernment types in both parties know very well that they are making government less effective and thus helping to ensure a vicious cycle of weakening government.

  2. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Fair enough. By more, I mean more stuff that should be done, as opposed to more makework. We all know they aren’t doing the jobs they should do. And that is a result of bad leadership, because the leadership doesn’t want them to actually do good.

  3. John Puma permalink
    September 11, 2012

    All the No.1’s are CIA.

  4. brian permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Your description of the corporation being a parasite gave me vivid images of the ant parasite Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This parasite infection alters the behavior of the ant, such that the final act of the infected ant is to climb over it’s colony, attach itself, and be the host of the sporulating body promoting further infection by raining spores on it’s colony mates.

    Regarding your main point, Al-Queda is fulfilling a need for these people, and as long as we apply pressure it will probably stay true to that need, and be functional. If we just got out, over time I would expect them to succumb to the same problems as our successful organizations suffer from. Loss of the one clear goal, leading to general apathy, letting the less virtuous exploit the former good intentions for their own personal gain, not that of the whole. Why is it that success seems to be the worst thing for any cause?

  5. September 11, 2012

    There’s something wrong with claiming that the Taliban is a “vibrant organization people believe in.” You are talking about one of the most brutal and sexist political factions on earth.

  6. September 11, 2012

    “Schools are lead by people who hate teachers and want to privatize schools to make profit. The US is lead by men who don’t believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Police are lead by men who think their job is to protect the few and beat down the many, not to protect and serve. Corporations make fancy mission statements and talk about valuing employees and customers, but they just want to make a buck and will fuck anyone, employee or customer, below the c-suite. They don’t have a “mission” (making money is not a mission, it’s a hunger if it’s all you want to do), they are parasites and they know it.”

    Nicely put. David Graeber would talk about the three ways of organizing; communism, hierarchy and the market or direct exchange. Most people live on an everyday basis communally. You are building something and you ask for the hammer. You don’t expect to pay rent for it or give the person with the hammer a hot dog in exchange. Anarchists say that organizations should be self-organized, voluntary and temporary in order to get the task done. He says that anarchism is not a theory but a way of living. It’s an attitude, a set of practices and a vision. An anarchist moves back and forth between the three. All, of course, based on a non-hierarchy and egalitarian concept of organizing.

  7. nihil obstet permalink
    September 11, 2012

    “[Western leaders] think [effective leadership] requires a soulless prevaricator who takes advantage of and abuses virtually everyone and is still able to get them to, reluctantly, do their jobs.”

    I have two reservations about a statement like this: first, Western leaders depend on the ideology of the very rare, genius leader to justify the enormous rewards they grant themselves. It’s why they’re determined to put financial incentives into every job, despite evidence that financial incentives are counterproductive in complex tasks. Second, Western leaders don’t give a rat’s ass about getting people to do their jobs, unless you define their jobs as deference to their supervisors. The leaders are happier if they aren’t inconvenienced by their workers or any obvious failures on their part (like Brownie’s FEMA and Hurricane Katrina), but as you say, they don’t believe in the organization’s goals and don’t care what their employees do.

  8. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 11, 2012

    The Taliban is a vibrant organization people believe in is not a not a statement of approval or disapproval, it is a description. At one time, so were the Nazis.

  9. Radical Livre permalink
    September 11, 2012

    That was beautiful. Seriously, tears in my eyes.

    That being said, I think it’s an exaggeration to say Western institutions aren’t functional. It’s just that their primary function is facilitating and protecting the ever greater concentration of wealth by a increasingly tinier proportion of people.

  10. StewartM permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Ian Welsh

    American leaders are obsessed with leadership because they lead organizations where no one believes in the organization’s goals.

    I think a simpler answer is: they believe in John Galt.

    They believe that the few elite create and are the movers and shakers, and the 99 % just turn food into crap. That idea if so transparently wrong–any review of the history of just about anything reviews that all “great ideas” and inventions are the result of many small hands and minds, not the isolated acts of one or a few geniuses. But the elites believe it, because they want to; believing it justifies their wealth and power.

    As for schools and demotivating people–gawd, who worth their salt would want the soul-destroying job of being a public school teacher today? All you do is to teach the standardized test. You don’t control the curricula at all, and hence you don’t inspire anyone and get the feedback rewards from that.

    Schooling has become way too vocational; we’ve let employers dictate way too much what goes into it. The idea that the idea of education is to produce a better-informed and -rounded human being who has basic familiarity with key topics has been lost in the drive to make the perfect employee hire (and let me tell you, as someone who has sat in hiring committees, our current system doesn’t produce that either. More like resume-padders).


  11. September 11, 2012


    People may or may not agree with your politics, but I want to assure everyone you are dead right on about leadership principles. The biggest proof: I heard General Stanley McChrystal a few months ago talking about leadership, and his point was exactly yours.

    Al Qaeda and the Taliban have learned to substitute values for command and control. As McChrystal told it, that was somewhat new to the US military, and they found they were being outmaneuvered. Good soldier that he is, he wouldn’t let politics get in the way of recognizing a powerful tactic that worked, and quickly recognized how much more efficient and effective it is to have a cadre of shared beliefs. As he noted, you can complete far more missions with far more certainty operating that way.

  12. Daniel De Groot permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Speaking of Nazis, Charles H. Green’s comment reminds me of one of the prime innovations of the German Army in the WW2 era: They empowered subordinates to complete the mission with or without direction from above (very ironic for the army of a fascist state). They have a term for it “Auftragstaktik.” The leader states the broad intent, and generally leaves subordinate leaders as much latitude as possible to determine how the mission will be accomplished.

    Americans know they have trouble with this:

    I suspect guerrilla groups and terrorist cells almost automatically operate under this sort of decentralized philosophy – top down micromanagement just isn’t possible in this kind of organization where the need for protection from air strike makes it very risky to transmit orders to subordinates. So when your cell’s next up leader is killed, you just keep doing what you were already doing. Eventually some new leader will provide new instructions but until then, you know the mission and can keep working to it.

    Ian’s insights into how subordinates behave in organizations where the true goals and missions are never communicated are valuable. Never mind the multiple ways that initiative is intentionally squashed in the US government (you can be fired by text message just on the rumour that the right wing press is about to write about you, as Shirley Sherrod found out), even if you wanted to display initiative, how can you when you don’t actually know what your leadership actually wants to do?

  13. September 12, 2012

    Al-Qaeda’s “#2″ man has been “killed” so often that it’s a running joke, and Taliban leadership is regularly killed by assassination. Bush did this, Obama really, really does this.

    Actually, I seem to remember that the Bush Administration made a habit of killing the Number Three Al Qaeda guy. I believe that was because, back then, we knew that Osama was No. 1 and his buddy the priest (can’t remember the guy’s name) was Number Two. Once the known Number Two died, it was possible to kill the number two guy on a weekly basis.

    Other than that, though, I find nothing to disagree with.

  14. David Kowalski permalink
    September 12, 2012

    History shows not only that genius leadership is rare but that its success is fleeting. What remains, if anything does, is due to more broadly based skills and talents. Take the history of the Greeks. The Spartans had some staying power due to the success of their training system but the success was limited because the cadre of Spartans was so small. We remember what Leonidas and 300 Spartans could do but it was Athens that won the battle of Marathon. Later, Spartan “genius” under Lysander triumphed but was unable to hold falling to a Theban genius and then the Athenians and finally the Macedonians. The core of Alexander’s empire lasted for 200 years just as the core of Genghis Khan’s empire lasted but the huge domains won by genius were fleeting.

    Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington had genius but it was the depth of British sea power, manufacturing and trade that maintained the empire and when the depth faded so did England’s colonial star.

    Look at the native American peoples and their resistance. Top down leadership failed (see the Aztecs or Incas). Brilliant leaders shone like the sun but set quickly often due to treachery (Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Crazy Horse). Broader based, less spectacular resistance held out and struggled giving ground grudgingly.

    When leaders and followers believe in the same mission, leaders are far more willing to risk their own lives. When only the leaders believe they are setting themselves up for a fragging if they do indeed follow the same behavior. Some truly great leaders are able to craft a mission and a unity that goes beyond themselves (Lincoln transformed “union” into “freedom”).

    This is a great insight extending, as you say, Ian, beyond the military to the society as a whole. It is little wonder that the unified U.S. and its economy performed far better in World War II than it does in the war on terror both economically and militarily.

  15. September 12, 2012

    Charles H. Green writes:

    As he noted, you can complete far more missions with far more certainty operating that way.

    I think the Army has recognized this for some time. They study how staffs and commanders work, and that’s a principle that quite few former officers I’ve met have said, that this is the way things work best – when people don’t always have to be told what to do, because they understand the goals, the plan, and the basic parameters already.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t something that’s widely recognized by American leaders generally.

  16. Morocco Bama permalink
    September 12, 2012


    The answer is obvious. We need to make Horror and Moral Terror our friends, otherwise, they will be our enemies…enemies to be feared. You want to retain Top Executives. Train them to embrace Horror and Moral Terror. Oh, wait…..


  17. Notorious P.A.T. permalink
    September 12, 2012

    Some leaders think their employees are there to make them look good. Good leaders think they are there to give their employees what they need to succeed.

  18. September 12, 2012

    OT, but I know this will be of interest to some of the denizens of this fine blog. Chris Hedges is to be debating violence with CrimethInc. at CUNY today, livestreamed at 6:30 pm. Link (scroll down for livestream link):

    CrimethInc. to Debate Chris Hedges in NYC

  19. September 12, 2012

    (Sorry – that’s 6:30 Eastern Standard Time.)

  20. David permalink
    September 12, 2012

    A nice insight which also explains the converse, namely the futility the “more and better democrats” meme. For just like a good and effective organization does not need geniuses to work, “more and better democrats” won’t matter that much if the organization is corrupt.

  21. Patrick permalink
    September 12, 2012

    Mr. Welsh’s analysis of leadership in the United States is spot on. In the private sector, it does not take long to learn your real role as cordwood for someone else’s profit furnace. This realization undercuts the natural enthusiasm that arises when participating in a mission as an organization. My experience in the Marine Corps was different. Although severely hierarchical, they believed in building leadership from the bottom ranks up. They stressed initiative as means to do that. The Marine Corps is by no means perfect, or a vibrant organization in the sense that I think Mr. Welsh means, but it’s pretty good. History offers another example, perhaps even better than Mr. Welsh’s, of a vibrant organization: The Viet Cong.

    Thanks for that post. It made my day.

  22. Rob Grigjanis permalink
    September 13, 2012

    Ian, aren’t you describing almost every government which has ever existed, and almost every rebel/insurgent movement which has ever existed? If the rebels win, they float into power on clouds of hope, and in a generation it’s back to square one. Naked apes with too much power don’t tend to behave well. Someone said something about that once.

  23. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 13, 2012

    No, I’m not. It has not always been so, there have been periods and places where government definitely worked. Certainly there are cycles, but we are in the extreme phase of one. Same with corporations, it’s trivial to see that corporations in the 50s and 60s, whatever their problems, were not as dysfunctional as those today (start with CEO and C-suite pay.)

  24. September 17, 2012

    Greetings Ian,

    Do you remember Mohammed Ibn Laith?

    Gorilla’s Guides » 2007 » February » 15:

    I am a Muslim I am Iraki maybe you believe that God told you that must turn aside when you have been struck.

    That is not what God tells me.

    What God tells me is what he tells every other Muslim when you are attacked you defend yourself and you keep on figthing until your attacker is in such pain that they offer truce or surrender. You attack back and you continue attacking relentlessly, never ever giving any respite, until the invader flees worn out with grief and horror and pain. Any sacrifice is warranted to expel the American I feel no grief when I see an American soldier die. I feel only relief that this one less barbarian to kill innocent Iraki children.

    And then there’s this from Colonel Iihsan:

    Gorilla’s Guides » Blog Archive » It is not only Americans who can say “Mission Accomplished”:

    The Resistance’s Tactics Were Successful

    This is the lesson of the Iraki Resistance’s war on the American invaders. The goal was not just to inflict death and physical wounds they goal was to drive American troops into mental and moral breakdown.

    The tactic was to attack American troops relentlessly — to force the American invaders to live in a situation where they never ever had any respite.

    The American invader was never to be able to relax they must be denied any respite, they were denied meaningful rest.

    The resistance consciously set out to inflict constant tension,constant sleeplessness, constant mental pain, and constant uncertainty, and fear upon the American invaders. The idea was to do this until a large proportion of the invaders were worn out with fatigue, grief, horror and pain.

     The Resistance’s intent was to not just inflict pain and horror on the invading troops for the sake of doing, the object was to shatter their minds so that while they were still in Irak they turned on their comrades. And then after they returned to America that they turned on the American civilian population at large.

    This tactic was, one resistance commander told me, far more successful than they had dared hope.

    The American high command, and American civilians are only now beginning to appreciate what the resitance did to them. They are only now starting to realise that they are not the only ones who can inflict “collateral damage” and that there is more than one form of it.

    It is not just Americans who can say “Mission Accomplished”.

    As you no doubt worked out a long time ago the murder of first his grandfather, followed by the murder of his parents, and the murder of his younger brother all by American forces decided Mohammed to join the resistance. He was a very successful commander who ensured that in his sector no Americans ever set foot outside their FOB’s other than in heavily armed convoys. He made sure that PRT leaders went home dead or wounded he made sure that civilian PRT members never ever got to leave their compounds. The Iraki resistance won their war – America ran away from Irak leaving its “enduring bases” and an awful lot of TOE behind them. All of which is a long-winded way of saying you’re right. Napoleon used to talk about “moral force” as a force multiplier which is what you’re discussing above.

    Hope you’re well. I very very very rarely comment here (I think this is my third) but I read you regularly.

    Keep well.


  25. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 17, 2012


    yes, thanks for the comment. I do remember Mohammed.

    I haven’t written about it, but I have discussed with friends, the collateral damage. I’m especially noticing it in police departments. The vets come back, join police departments and the results are ugly. They have no fire discipline, act as if they’re in a war zone, blowing away civilians indiscriminantly if they feel in the least danger (the guy who killed his boss in NY comes to mind) and often when they clearly aren’t (a man running away from them). They also have a taste for brutality, and the only people they have fellow-feeling for are their mates, certainly not anyone who isn’t in their “unit”.

    Then, of course, there are the homeless veterans, the suicides, the wife and child beaters, and the rapists.

    A lot of these people are VERY badly damaged. Occupation is always brutalizing, for everyone involved, but this bunch has been particularly brutalized. One of my friends is an ex-US military officer, out before Iraq, and to say that he is livid is a vast understatement.

    The same thing happened to the Israeli army, over time. And Americans went and copied failed Israeli tactics.

    We saw it happening at the time. Not just immoral, and unethical, but a mistake.

    But the resistance did not win much of a victory. Brutalizing your brutalizers is all very nice and I have no moral qualms against it. If Canada was invaded, I would fight, and I would join the resistance, and if the invaders were American (and who else could it be) I would rejoice at every dead American soldier.

    But at the end of the day, Iraq is in shambles, appears to be essentially a protectorate of Iran, has a huge Kurdish problem (or the Kurds have an Iraqi problem, depending on where you sit), violence is ongoing, and so on.

    Iraq was never a war anyone was going to “win”, that’s why people like me were against it from before the beginning. All anyone can claim, at best, is a Pyrrhic victory.

    As for America, as I’ve said in the past, the first great man of the 21st century (great is not a synonym for good) was bin Laden. He wanted to draw America onto the ground, and bleed them like the USSR was bled, costing them so much treasure that their economy could no longer bear the costs of empire. He, essentially, succeeded, thanks to the sublime stupidity of his enemies. He must have gotten down on his knees every day and thanked God for George Bush and American high command and the NeoCons. And now the Muslim brotherhood is in charge in Egypt and that is a direct result of food inflation, which is a direct result of the costs and opportunity costs of Bush’s idiot eternal wars, and the mandate that 9/11 game him to be an evil moron.

    The far enemy (US) is blowing up its goddamn satraps with its insane financial and economic policies. That strain is exactly what bin Laden wanted, he says so in his writing.

    He’s dead, but he’s winning. And I think that’s a deal he would have happily taken if offered to him September 10th, 2001.

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