If You Want Good Leaders, Make Sure They're Good Thinkers

To be blunt, how Washington thinks stinks.

Here’s a thought. Perhaps part of the reason the world seems to have gone haywire for America is that our nation’s leaders don’t think as well as they used to—that all our great thinking is behind us. The best prescription for fixing that may lie in how we prepare generals, diplomats and policymakers to lead.

Even during the Cold War, America’s best and brightest weren’t always at their most cool-headed. Remember the Bay of Pigs? Not the smartest move ever. Lyndon Johnson’s war? That didn’t go so well. There is a long list of other tragic misjudgments, dictator coddling and dirty tricks.

On the other hand, from George Kennan’s strategic vision in the Long Telegram to Ronald Reagan tying Moscow in knots, there were certainly bright spots. On balance, America didn’t make out so bad. The U.S. ended the Cold War stronger than when it started. The world was richer. There were more democracies.

Now Americans look back at the promise of a world that seems far out of our reach today.

Not that the downturn of the last several seasons cannot be blamed just on bad reasoning from Washington. A great deal of creative disruption has been unleashed on the world during this time, from the rise of Silicon Valley to the unleashing of the Arab Spring. And, of course, the enemy gets a vote, no matter how carefully we plan our moves.

That said, our choices do matter. From responding to 9/11 to the Asian Pivot, our choices have helped shaped the modern world. After all, the U.S. started the post–Cold War era like a marathon runner with a commanding lead. Losing the lead is as much about the frontrunner slowing down as it as adversaries catching up.

If there is a vacuum in the post–Cold War mind, there are many lining up to fill it. In their article “Delusions of Grand Strategy,” Professors David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs attack the process. “The strategizing ritual contributes to an overwhelming sense of insecurity,” they argue. “The country would be better off without it.”

But this critique falls well short. There is a difference between the process being the problem and the problem being that the process is poorly implemented. Edelstein and Krebs don’t make a convincing distinction.

In his classic “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” Henry Mintzberg detailed all the pathologies that can send a well-meaning strategic planning exercise off the rails. There is more reason to suspect that these failures are at the root of the problems that perplex Edelstein and Krebs.

Further, “Delusions of Grand Strategy” doesn’t offer much of a prescription for deep thinking. Edelstein and Krebs argue that deep thinkers need to be “pragmatic.” That suggestion isn’t much help. What policymaker does not think they are pragmatic? And “pragmatic” is just another subjective construct that shallow thinkers can use to justify any nutty idea they have.

There is a case to be made for focusing on people over process. If general, diplomats and other policymakers are solid thinkers the process will yield to their wisdom rather than leading them, lemming-like, into bad places.

Describing what makes a good deep-thinking team is one thing; finding and harnessing that talent is another.

For starters, the U.S. government could have better means for developing human capital within government, and for crafting careers that prepare military and civilian leaders to operate effectively in complex, difficult environments.

More attention, however, should be paid to the education that fuels the intellectual development of future deep thinkers. That could be the taproot of where Washington is really going wrong.

To be blunt, how Washington thinks stinks. The latest round of conjecture overanalyzing ISIS is a case in point. Max Abrams argues in the Harvard Business Review that there is more cognitive dissonance than cogitating among many experts, who confidently explain what the terrorists are up to after assessing virtually no evidence.

The irony here is even as science is making remarkable strides in understanding how the brain works, we’re doing very little to apply that teaching to people who decide when to make wars, invade countries and negotiate with dictators.

Daniel J. Levitin, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University, in his book The Organized Mind, for example, summarizes the current state of neuroscience discoveries and explains how a better understanding of how the brain works can be used to cope with the challenge of too much information. The book “stresses the many ways in which evolution designed our minds to succeed in an environment that was utterly unlike the world of information overload we now face,” writes Levitin.

Sadly, Washington seems too busy to take time to think about handling the problem of being too busy. Officials spend too much time swimming in a mass of information than determining how to master the tsunami of knowledge they are drowning in.