The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”
Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Throwing Resources
One of the observed sources of inefficiency, lack of effectiveness, and even corruption in some places was the pattern of the U.S. government and the Coalition Provincial Authority was to try to solve complex and deep rooted problems by just trying to throw a bunch of money, people (often the wrong ones), and resources at the problem.
There were grand plans when the regime of Saddam Hussein was defeated. The western world set its sights on turning Iraq into the proverbial “city on a hill” in the middle east of what a democracy could look like. The problem was the infrastructure was a mess and there were deep rooted dynamics in culture and history that also contributed to the great challenges of leading “change.”
There was a budget and money going into the war for post war reconstruction, but was only a fraction of what would be needed to make up for decades of mismanagement and neglect. Part of the story of the Iraq reconstruction is the competition for resources and money in particular. Nobody had what they needed to do their jobs right – except for administrators. There’s a lesson there – though this point would seem to go against the main point of this post.
Problem 1: Ignorant Allocation
One of the tragedies of the reconstruction is that money was often allocated by people who just didn’t know what the issues were or what was needed. When people screamed loud enough, or if something was going to be especially strategic in terms of how people were going to perceive their efforts and progress, then money would get allocated. But there was not much of a big picture framework of what was most important if the Iraqi people were going to be served for the long haul.
Problem 2: Indiscriminate & Impatient Allocation
Another tragedy is that when money and people was given, it was offered often in disconnection from unified understanding of what stewardship of those resources would look like. Money was distributed without plans and without real clear frameworks of what success would look like – or even what was possible.
There is also the issue of expected money and people to be able to magically solve complex problems quickly. Western problem solving sometimes takes the form of just wanting to give people a bunch of money and snap your fingers and problem solved. There’s almost an unconscious belief that money is a form of magic – that if you give money that the problem will get solved. The problem – is that throwing money and resources is usually aimed at QUICK FIXES and not at the type of adaptive or generative learning needed for long term solutions. There’s an arrogant, subtle blame-shifting attitude that can show itself too – well we gave them the money, so if the job didn’t get done it’s on them and not us. This is the epitome of paternalistic, non-serving leadership. Well give you the money and take the success when it happens, but if met with failure then it’s not on us!
Obviously Iraq post-war reconstruction is a case study on a massive scale. But I see the same dynamics in other places. We want to solve complex and deep rooted problems (particularly as it relates to cross-cultural dynamics) by just flooding those problems with money and people. There’s more attention on how to get more people and resources then there is on what must be learned so that investment of resources will be smart and strategic and wise. Failure to ground allocation of resources in generative learning (learning that leads to thriving, not just surviving) results in massive waste and poor stewardship.
Are we learning what we’re supposed to learn before we throw money and people at a problem? We can’t learn everything beforehand, but we should be able to learn enough about WHO should be involved and therefore who else might be wise to include in the process of allocation for the sake of long term effectiveness.
Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader
Don’t just try to solve big problems by throwing money and by trying to get “more people.” These decisions usually are birthed by insular decision making anyway. Sometimes, a lot of the time, it’s easier to get money than wisdom. If the goal is long term fruitfulness and the benefit of those you are seeking to serve, then we must get the needed learning and not settle for sugar daddy solutions or acts of desperation. Sugar daddy solutions are when you are using money to try to achieve your agenda and accomplish your goals (but a secret agenda is trying to make yourself look good in the process). Acts of desperation is when you don’t know what to do so you just throw a bunch of money at a problem.
Both of these examples do not lead to serving. They may “help” some things, but they aren’t transformational enough for those who are being served or for those that are supposedly called to serve.
Learn, Listen, Get a critical mass of the right people who can speak for the context that you are seeking to see change in and collaborate on solutions. A lot of bad decisions and waste of resources could be solved by making sure those that have the best vantage point for what’s needed are involved in the decision making.
But throwing resources and people against the wall to see what sticks is not serving. It may feel like it at times. It may feel good to do something instead of nothing. When we throw money at the wall, the worst is that it goes to waste. But when we throw people at the wall, they tend to get damaged or feel used.
We owe people more than that and we owe it to our calling and Maker to be better stewards of both money and resources even in the face of complex problems.
How do you guard against throwing money and people against the wall to see what sticks? How do you work to see resources stewarded in the service of long term solutions instead of squandered for short-term solutions?
Addendum after initial posting:
This is an insight confirmed both by the green zone case study as well as through some conversations and contributions people have emailed me since posting. One of the challenges of “Throwing Resources” is that your success is misleading. Sometimes you just luck out with an extraordinary leader or circumstance that can make the needed adjustments. But the problem is when such decisions are made from centralized brain trusts, you’re likely more dependent on luck for success than you would like to admit. There seems to be a higher correlation with decentralized allocation of funding and decisions about resources with long term success and the fruit of serving leadership.