Grading the M.B.A. President
Does Bush's business-school style hold too few accountable?
Whether they love him or hate him, management gurus and business executives agree on one thing about President Bush: His leadership style has been shaped by his 1975 Harvard M.B.A.
Bush's rigorous scheduling and message discipline, hands-off management style, and reliance on loyal longtime associates are all characteristics of B-schoolers. And many of the first M.B.A. president's management techniques represent a welcome change from those of, for example, his punctuality-challenged predecessor, who was trained as an attorney. But some business leaders worry that Bush may not be applying some of B-school's most important lessons and may be suffering instead from all-too-typical M.B.A. flaws, such as overconfidence.
"He seems to pride himself on M.B.A. characteristics, like delegating to his key people and saying he holds them accountable for results," says Roger Enrico, who does not have an M.B.A. but served as CEO of PepsiCo in the late 1990s and is now chairman of DreamWorks Animation. But Enrico, a big Republican contributor in 2000, says that the continuing worsening of the U.S. trade and budget deficits and the violence in Iraq have made him worry that Bush isn't holding his aides sufficiently accountable. If his own subordinates delivered such disappointing results, Enrico says, he would do some firing: "It is time to change the team."
Execution. Others say that while Bush is masterful at creating and selling his vision, he seems to struggle with execution. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, founder of the Yale School of Management's Chief Executive Leadership Institute, says that when he taught at the Harvard Business School in the 1980s, 50 percent of every exam's grade was determined by the student's implementation plan. Sonnenfeld, a Democrat, says he would give Bush "an F for contingency planning."
And Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford management professor, says the mistakes he sees Bush making "are extremely typical of those being made in corporate America." Pfeffer, also a Democrat, says Bush, who maintains an unwavering commitment to military action in Iraq, reminds him of other corporate leaders whose faith in their own abilities and theories blinded them to legitimate criticism. "Look back at Enron," says Pfeffer of the energy trading company once led by Jeffrey Skilling, who received his Harvard M.B.A. four years after Bush." They said the people who were criticizing them didn't understand" their complex accounting. Bush, he says, reminds him of business school graduates who too often try to "BS their way through" instead of "facing hard facts and continually trying to learn and adjust."
This story appears in the April 3, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.