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Jan 19, 2007

Midwives, matchmakers, Napoleon, and Kutuzov

Mamtchmakers and midwifes: that’s what managers are. The truth is, in a complex organization, managers don’t rarely come up with creative ideas, nor do they do most of the actual work. What we do is act as matchmakers, linking people, opportunities, and resources together. Notice, we do not create people, opportunities, and resources, we just looking for a match. To extend the metaphor a bit, managers don’t fall in love and conceive babies; they just make sure it happens regularly enough. Then when people work on a project, managers make sure the baby gets delivered, and does not get an infection, has some air to breath, etc.

The reason I am thinking about these things is this: We have actually accomplished quite a few things in the last six months, but I can take no more credit for that than a matchmaker and a midwife can take credit for new babies. Couples fall in love, struggle through misunderstanding, have dreams, conceive babies, make money, etc. It is women who bear, deliver, and nurse babies.

Let’s make a list:

  1. Our revision of the Elementary PTEP has been approved yesterday. The idea, the understanding of the problem, and the expertise existed long before I came on board. I would be an idiot to imagine this is somehow my achievement.
  2. Our new Early Childhood PTEP will accept new students in the Fall. Again, the revision has been in the works for a long time; all I had to do is to yell “push, push.”
  3. Our newly redesigned Ed.D. program already has two new doctoral students, with assistantships. Again – was there before me, just took very little tweaking.
  4. We will be opening a new Postbac Cohort in the Summer, and hiring a new cohort coordinator to run all off-campus cohorts. This was a s easy as poking a whole to let waters burst, pardon the analogy. The program has been very popular and successful, we had many more applicants than spots, so a no-brainer.
  5. We will have a new and simplified record-keeping system in place by Fall, (check-point course system).
  6. People write large grant applications, publish books and articles, organize conferences, try new things in class, deal with difficult students, develop evaluation policies, search for new hires, etc., etc., etc. All of this – with very little, or no help at all from me.

I am writing this not just to thank everyone (although this is clearly my intent), and not out of sense of modesty, for I have none. I think it is an important theoretical point; this is how organizations and their leaders function best. The easiest, most efficient way of achieving good results is to use what is already going on, and let the good things happen, while preventing bad things from happening. That’s about it, and then you’d get credit for other people’s work, shamelessly.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy makes a compelling case for how little Napoleon’s decisions mattered in the events during his Russian campaign of 1812. The small decisions and desires of many thousands of people seem to decide the course of events, the movements of huge armies, their victories and defeats. In contrast to Napoleon and his delusions of power, the Russian commander-in-chief, Kutuzov, clearly realized how little influence he actually had on the events of the war. Kutuzov led by what appears to be an inexplicable passivity. All he was doing is trying to sense where things are going, and not interfere with the natural course of events. For example, he had many opportunities to fight the French in better locations, but he did not feel that his army was psychologically ready for the decisive battle. Finally, the main battle that occurred at Borodino, began almost by an accident, developed in a way that no one could plan or predict, and ended in a way that both sides could claim victory. In the end, however, this was the most important battle that determined the utter defeat of the French army. Tolstoy does not claim that the historical events he describes are random. Quite to the contrary, he clearly sees patterns:

“In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and is expressed by a movement of peoples from west to east. Several times it moves eastward and collides with a countermovement from the east westward. In 1812 it reaches its extreme limit, Moscow, and then, with remarkable symmetry, a countermovement occurs from east to west, attracting to it, as the first movement had done, the nations of middle Europe. The counter movement reaches the starting point of the first movement in the west--Paris-- and subsides.”

Using purely empirical observations, Tolstoy questions the existence of the free will, at least in how it affects history, but also sees a remarkable regularity of these events. At the very end of the Second Epilogue, he draws parallel between Copernicus’s discovery and this new understanding of history. Because we do not feel that Earth is moving does not mean that it does not; because we feel that we have the free will, does not mean that we actually do.

Well, Tolstoy is exaggerating; there is free will, and leaders do make difference, just as Kutuzov did. But most of the events that occur are not determined by any one person, or any specific group of people. In fact, most of the things that happen in an organization no one wants to happen.

There are also two types of leaders, the napoleons and the kutuzovs. The napoleons always try to manage events directly, try to control what is going on in their organization. The napoleons can be very conservative, or very reform-minded (which, in my view requires similar type of personality), but at the core of their leadership strategy is the belief that events can be (at least in theory) controlled. The kutuzovs clearly understand the limits of their own (or anyone else’s) power. They sense the patterns. The kutuzovs may not understand the reasons for these patterns, or causes of changes, but still have a healthy respect for the forces outside of their control. The napoleons analyze the causes of problems, assign responsibility, plan changes, write mission statements, draw implementation plans. The kutuzovs also do all these things, but deep down doubt efficacy of such efforts. They try to soften the blows of administrative arbitrariness, and encourage small practical developments they find important. What I am really trying to say is that Kutuzov is my ideal, not Napoleon. But then again, this is maybe because I am Russian.

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