Anx­i­ety is a good at­tribute for lead­ers

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Tom Fox Fox is a vice pres­i­dent at the non­profit Part­ner­ship for Public Ser­vice. Heis guest con­trib­u­tor to the Wash­ing­ton Post’s On Lead­er­ship sec­tion.

Cass Sun­stein is a pro­fes­sor and legal scholar at Har­vard Law School, the au­thor of nu­mer­ous books and the for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tor of the White House Of­fice of In­for­ma­tion and Reg­u­la­tory Af­fairs. He spoke about his ex­pe­ri­ences in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, his views on reg­u­la­tory pol­icy and lead­er­ship, his fa­vorite sport (squash) and be­ing mar­ried to a pow­er­ful woman.

The in­ter­view was edited for length and clar­ity. In your new­book, “Wiser: Get­ting Be­yond Group-think to Make Groups Smarter,” you divide lead­ers into two cat­e­gories: those whoare com­pla­cent and easy­go­ing and those whoare anx­ious. Which type makes a bet­ter leader?

A com­pla­cent leader is some­one who is up­beat, op­ti­mistic, who has a clear sense of di­rec­tion, who is con­fi­dent that things will be fine and who has a de­gree of sun­ni­ness. An anx­ious leader is some­one whomay be easy to get along with but also is think­ing about all the things that could go wrong and al­ways see­ing the worst-case sce­nario.

There is no ques­tion that the anx­ious leader is much bet­ter than the com­pla­cent leader. The anx­ious leader is able to re­di­rect en­er­gies, lis­ten to in­for­ma­tion from em­ploy­ees and won’t con­tinue the course of ac­tion if it’s fail­ing. The anx­ious leader also will be flex­i­ble and in­ven­tive and will fore­see things that could go wrong. There’s a say­ing that goes, “If youmake a plan, God laughs. If youmake two plans, God smiles.” The anx­ious lead­ers are mak­ing two plans. Can you giveme an ex­am­ple of some­one who fits the anx­ious leader model?

Jeff Zients, who is now the head of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil, was brought in by the pres­i­dent to fix Health­Care.gov. I’m sure hewas al­ways think­ing about what could go wrong. And more specif­i­cally, say­ing, “This could be a catas­tro­phe. If that’s a risk, then what will we do about it?”

Hav­ing a con­stant pro­duc­tive anx­i­ety doesn’t mean that peo­ple are mis­er­able and wail­ing but that peo­ple knowthey will be held accountable if things do not go right. What­was one of the most sur­pris­ing lessons you learned about gov­ern­ment dur­ing your time as the pres­i­dent’s reg­u­la­tory chief?

That the public com­ment process for fed­eral reg­u­la­tions is im­mensely im­por­tant and very sub­stan­tive. I taught ad­min­is­tra­tive law for many years, and many teach­ers of the sub­ject think that the public com­ment process is a TV show, and what ac­tu­ally is determined hap­pens be­hind closed doors. That viewis com­pletely wrong.

When you set a rule out for public com­ment, you will of­ten get com­ments say­ing, “This sec­tion is go­ing to hurt small busi­ness,” or, “This pro­vi­sion could be changed in away to get the public safety im­pact dou­bled.” Those are phe­nom­e­nally help­ful. You learn that you miss some things.

Some­times what­was missed was not huge but, if fixed, would save hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for peo­ple who de­served those sav­ings. And some­times you learn the whole pro­posal was mis­di­rected or wrong. In your role over­see­ing fed­eral reg­u­la­tions, you were in­volved in a lot of hot-but­ton is­sues. You had your fans and your crit­ics on the left and right. How did you ap­proach this job?

Eco­nomic growth was the top pri­or­ity, and we were not go­ing to be do­ing a lot of the reg­u­la­tions by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards. Ifwe have benefits that ex­ceed costs, that’s a good rea­son to go for­ward; if the costs were too high for those benefits, it was a good rea­son not to go for­ward. If there­was a rule that­would save dozens or hun­dreds of lives and it wouldn’t cost all that­much, then I’d be for that, even if the peo­ple who bore those costs didn’t like it very much. If there­was a rule fa­vored by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists or the pro­gres­sive com­mu­nity that­was go­ing to ham­mer the econ­omy and have mod­est benefits, then I’d be very cau­tious about that. The fo­cus was on the con­se­quences and not on back­ground noise fromthe po­lit­i­cal ac­tors. What would peo­ple be sur­prised to know about you?

I ama pro­fes­sional squash player and I re­cently played badly, but aswell as I could, in a pro­fes­sional squash tour­na­ment. I re­cently played in the Char­lotte Open, where I got crushed by the 105th best player in the­world. Be­ing crushed was an honor. What’s it like to be mar­ried to Sa­man­tha Power, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions?

She’s com­pletely amaz­ing. Be­ing mar­ried to her is some­times poignant, when things aren’t go­ing so great in some parts of the­world. Be­ing mar­ried to her is some­times hi­lar­i­ous, be­cause she is re­ally funny. The least good part is when I get called inmy place of res­i­dence “Mr. Power.” The best part is when the two of us go out to din­ner.

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