Leadership: Why not Bartlett, or Vinick, for president?

January 7, 2008

Often I ponder that there are few, if any, worthy models of bosses in popular media, especially in television. This realization struck me several years ago when a friend and I were working on a book on leadership (never published). Models of action are very powerful things. When people see other people doing things, people copy the behaviors, even unconsciously — ask any parent whose kid suddenly informed the in-laws or PTA of the parent’s ability to cuss in a fashion that would embarrass most sailors.

So, the models of what we see as bosses probably affect what we actually get in the workplace. This should trouble you: There are not a lot of good models of good bosses in any medium.

West Wing, 6th season DVD

In the comic strips, for example, we have Dagwood Bumstead and his boss Mr. Dithers, who wars with his wife, who seems to be an authoritarian despot who physically abuses his workers. Or in more modern strips, we have Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, who is an incompetent at all human functions, and most management functions as well. Don’t get me going on Beetle Bailey with incompetents all the way up the line from Sgt. Snorkle.

On television we’ve had incompetents and yellers for years. Phil Silvers played Sgt. Bilko. In every incarnation of Lucille Ball’s programs, a boob boss was required — from Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban temper flareups through Gale McGee’s bosses whose manifold, manifest foibles made them great comic foils. Homer Simpson’s ultimate boss, Mr. Burns, anyone?

Generally, even where someone plays a pretty good boss — Crockett’s and Tubbs’ boss on the old Miami Vice, or the lab heads in any of the current CSI series — there is another boss above them who has some massive failing, or a vendetta against the good team.

Exceptions are rare. Some of the Star Treks did better than others. Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Next Generation, was ideal as boss in many ways. It was particularly interesting to watch him give his “No. 1,” Riker, first choice in missions on foreign planets. The character Picard had a particular way of showing confidence in subordinates, in subtly demanding the best from them. He’d ask for opinions or ideas on what to do next; when someone came up with a workable idea, or even only the best idea of an apparently unworkable lot, Picard would look them in the eye and delegate to the team the authority to make it happen: “Make it so,” he’d say.

If only we could make it so.

Then there was The West Wing. I think it premiered when I was teaching at night. For whatever reason, I didn’t see a single episode until reruns shortly before the second season. I caught new episodes almost never. Read the rest of this entry »


Quote of the moment: Richard Feynman, science vs. public relations

January 7, 2008

Feynman speaking from the grave? You decide:

Feynman uses a glass of ice water to show the Challenger's O-ring problem, 1986

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Richard Feynman, in the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, appendix (1986)

Photo: Richard Feynman, at a hearing of the Rogers Commission, demonstrates with a glass of ice water and a piece of O-ring material, how cold makes the O-rings inflexible; photo credit unknown


    Happy Birthday, Millard Fillmore!

    January 7, 2008

    January 7, 2008, is the 208th anniversary of Millard Fillmore’s birth.

    More obscure facts about our 13th president:

    Promoter of Minnesota’s development: According to a letter in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on January 3, Minnesota owes a debt to Fillmore, for his public relations gimmick on the Mississippi River with a steamboat:

    The Minnesota Territory was promoted as a wonderfully healthy, resource-rich and abundantly diverse landscape by the Grand Excursion of 1854, the riverboat excursion up the Mississippi River made by President Millard Fillmore and scores of journalists from the East. It was a resounding success; in the succeeding years thousands of settlers came to the territory to seek a new life. On May 11, 1858, we became the 32nd state.

    Health care: Two hospitals in the Buffalo, New York, area bear Millard Fillmore’s name, Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital and Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. A planning process by the state of New York threatens to close the facility at Gates Circle, in a drive to eliminate overlapping services to save money.

    No pets: Millard Fillmore is one of only three presidents to have no pets while in the White House. Franklin Pierce and Chester Alan Arthur are the other two. The no-pets group are mired in obscurity and mediocrity, but I’ll make no post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis.

    Share the mirth: Millard Fillmore shares his birthday with cartoonist Charles Addams, and with newswoman Katie Couric.

    Coincidence? Some think not: Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft both died on March 8, but in different years. Is that too great a coincidence? Heck, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same day, in the same year — and that day was July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That is one of the top ten best pieces of evidence of intelligent design in the universe, and still not enough to get intelligent design into biology classes. Random or not, Millard Fillmore’s reputation is neither helped nor hurt by the fact.

    Forgettable lines: Millard Fillmore has nothing quoted in the Yale Book of Quotations.

    How will you commemorate Millard Fillmore today?


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