This is a much delayed post in the series I’ve entitled “Green Zone Leadership,” which is a compilation of reflections and insights from reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City – the account of the U.S. led rebuilding effort after the second gulf war. I routinely reflect on this book as the account mirrors a lot of what happens when powerful organizational entities seek to help and empower others. I aimed to write this post last summer, but alas – life happens.
Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Bureaucracy
This was the easiest phenomenon to observe in this massive case study of leadership and an effort to empower. For bureaucracy is all over the book. Bureaucracy isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary thing to some degree. Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday and Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball both illustrate that organizations all require some measure of centralization that keeps them from losing all form and sense of corporate purpose.
But what was quite evident in the book and what most of has have experienced in one place or another is the soul sucking culture shaped by structures whose original purposes of serving have been overwhelmed by the instincts of self-preservation and the elevation of order as the highest virtue.
Servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf wrote the following:
“Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, and formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness – a pretty bad state of affairs. It is the feet of clay that seem to encumber everything that is organized. As I see it, this is the way all institutions tend to become as they grow old, large, or respectable……..They may do some good in the world; in fact, they are all we have. But they still tend to become bureaucracies–given size, age, and respectability. Because we need the good they do, we tend to overlook the harm done because they are bureaucracies.” (294)
The “Green Zone” was almost synonymous with bureaucracy. The book outlines time after time in which efforts to serve were delayed, corrupted, or silenced under the power of the bureaucracy. But there is a fantastic section of the book called “Breaking the Rules” that captured how one leadership defied the bureaucracy and truly served the Iraqis and left them empowered to lead their own in that respective domain.
But he had to completely break the rules and step out of the bureaucracy to do it. One man, Alex Deghan went to extraordinary lengths to do the job he was asked to do, yet if he went “by the book” even remotely it would have never happened – more money would have been wasted, the end product would be lower quality, and leaders would not have been set up to succeed in leading their own people.
One example – he wanted to train Iraqis to guard the science center he was developing and needed them equipped to look for car bombs and other things. No one would help him out. He tried to get some U.S. security guards to help. Finally he found a guy that said he would do it if he could get a full length mirror so he could enhance his sex life while in Iraq. Deghan immediately went to the market and made it happen. Now obviously – that’s a racy example, but it illustrates the kind of foolishness that can get in the way of good being done and sometimes what is required to remove unnecessary barriers to serving.
Deghan had to resort to desperate measures just to access the money allocated to his project and assignment. The Green Zone bureaucracy created insane delays and stonewalled legitimate requests because of black and white rigidity. Deghan came up with a solution that took incredible initiative and effort, but was so outside the box that an accountant told him he was actually probably breaking Federal Law. Yet later, when the rebuilding effort ran into problems financially of how to distribute money they came back to Deghan and began implementing his strategy of getting funds from the U.S. to the actual projects they were earmarked for.
But Deghan, in his relentless effort to serve – do a quality job that empowered the Iraqis and stewarded the resources, drew incredible backlash from other Americans in the Green Zone. He was threatened, stonewalled, and given the run around because he was viewed to have no respect for the system. The author captured his reality and the fruit of his leadership well writing,
“He was the only guy in the Emerald City who feared his fellow Americans more than he did Iraqi insurgents.
Because he didn’t do business the Green Zone way, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he also created an institution that was immediately successful.” (255)
Every organization has great people whose duty is to keep things working smoothly and staying within a reasonable measure of order. Most systems are initially designed to serve. Yet bureaucracy sneaks up on the best of us sometimes. Sometimes change just takes a long time. Sometimes organizations are “blessed” with people who have managed to make themselves indispensable because they have held onto all the knowledge in their domain so that they feel secure and safe. Some cultures just value order and control more than others. Whatever the reason, bureaucracy happens. And when it does, it doesn’t serve.
The reality is, whether it’s Malone’s “core” or Mackenzie’s “hairball” or Greenleaf’s “bureaucracy”, to truly serve people that lie outside of those initial domains, a measure of freedom and flexibility is required. Using Mackenzie’s language, we have to “orbit” to serve. We cannot truly serve if we are solely functioning either within or for the hairball. We have to have some separation, some freedom of identity to think and create and adapt, if we are truly going to serve specific people in specific contexts.
What this means is that if you aren’t sometimes willing to break the rules, get outside the system sometimes, or think more flexibility than the organizational structures (or those structures’ guardians) encourage or allow, then YOU ARE NOT TRULY SERVING. You can’t serve both masters. You either are going to serve people or you are going to serve structures. We usually start with people and always drift towards structures. These structures show up in policies, curriculums, schedules, and processes that are embedded in our organizations (HR not the least of which, which is the arena in which I often work!)
I believe we are all vulnerable to bureaucracy, some more than others. But that’s what makes great leadership to me. Great servant leaders are those that reverse the direction of energy and leadership activity away from structures and back towards people. At the heart, bureaucrats become what they are because they forget what truly serving even means. They begin to confuse order and lack of chaos for just and serving environments. Order gives the illusion that everything is ok, when the reality is that order often becomes an instrument of repression, conformity, and punitive judgment rather than a tool to be submitted for the sake of human functioning and expression, creativity, and freedom.
Structures are part of what it means to serve people, as long as they remain submitted to that purpose. But we all face decisions about whether we are going to serve people or serve order. When faced with that moral and ethical tension – I hope you and I consistently choose to serve people. Authentic servanthood tends to create its own “order” that usually does a better job than structurally imposed order anyway. And if we don’t know if we’re serving, I hope we all have the humility to find out!
Alex Deghan is a hero of mine and an example to be followed. He was not rebelling or “sticking it to the man.” He was navigating a giant hairball with the complete goal to serve the Iraqis and empower them for the future. He chose to serve people, not the bureaucracy and he went to great lengths to do it.
The author made a note about Deghan and one other similar character in the Baghdad narrative. He wrote, “Their resumes didn’t suggest them for their jobs, but they had plenty of chutzpah and, more importantly, they weren’t political hacks.” (253) These two men who had uncommon effectiveness in both explicit objectives as well as subjective measures of authentic empowerment had these two things in common – they were creatively courageous and they were able to think and function outside of the bureaucracy for the sake of the people they were there for in the first place.
I’m not advocating “sticking it to the man” or going rogue. That’s not what this discussion is about. I’m only talking about being independent of thought enough to be able to identify what serves and courageous enough to lead towards that without settling for the convenient excuses or losing heart at the silly, but formidable obstacles often faced. Maybe there are times that are extreme enough to merit some measure of rogueness like Deghan. But like Deghan’s example of funding, some measures of rogueness that result in transformational serving are frequently copied by “the man” who simply had never been able to think outside of the box and take the required risks. So sometimes being labeled “rogue” is just a matter of being the first one to try to solve a problem by those that have refused to see and solve that problem prior.
Deghan is worth listening to as he speaks to the paternalistic and controlling tendencies of bureaucracy along with a perspective that might help free us to serve….
“One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Deghan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.” (255)
If you get a chance to read this book, it’s well worth it. It’s a tragedy really that sometimes masquerades as a comedy of errors. Even if you don’t, remember that the only way to serve the Emerald City is to stay free enough from the Green Zone.