In a very general way, you can divide men up into four categories, based on their role in an organization. In one group you have the decision makers, the people who sit at the top, making decisions for the organization. Then there is the adviser type, who specializes in an area and advises the decision maker. Then there are the executors, who carry out the decisions made by the decision makers, often relying on the special knowledge of the directors. Then, of course, there is everyone else.
Depending upon the arc of your life, the first time most people meet a decision maker is when they get into the work world or maybe in the military. Maybe at your first job out of college you got introduced, along with the other new hires, to one of the senior executives in the company. Perhaps it was in the service when you were in the same room with a senior officer. You did not have to know you were in the presence of decision maker, as you just knew it. They were different.
The fact is, people who make decisions are different. These are people comfortable taking responsibility for their actions. They are also aware of the fact that their decisions have consequences for others. Senior officers put men into harm’s way, senior executives decide the fate of the company and business owners have the welfare of their employees to consider. People good at this role, comfortable with it, have a different air about them. Their power level is obvious.
The adviser role is often where decisions makers are cultivated, but some men are best suited to be seconds. Look around at careers and it is not unusual to see a decision maker have a very short turn in the adviser role. It was just a resume builder, not a training ground. The people best at this role enjoy mastering a narrow area and being the guy relied upon to advise on it. They are also the type of people who have to be reminded that perfection is the enemy of the good enough.
The execution layer is where most people spend their lives. They either give orders to everyone else or they take orders like everyone else. They may not like the policies and procedures handed down to them, but they value the need to follow orders and maintain those policies and procedures. This layer will often get called on by decision makers to tell them how those policies are working. They are the first to see the real-world consequences of the decisions made at the top.
Now, life being what it is, few people like to walk around advertising the fact they are just a person who takes orders. The military solves this by forcing everyone to advertise their status on their uniform. Corporations have floors to let everyone know their status in the firm. Out in the wild, people are free to fake it. This is obvious on-line, where people often wildly overstate their status. There are more top-shelf attorneys on Twitter than anywhere on earth. It is the same with every profession.
Events often reveal the reality of people’s role. These are people who were able to get away with speaking in generalities about their supposed subject, but are revealed to have only a superficial understanding of it. This is most amusing with the legal experts that turn up on cable chat shows. Much of what these people say is nonsense, because they never actually practiced law. Those that did, ended up in the television studio, because they were not very good at being a lawyer.
We see this with the coronavirus and the subsequent lock-downs. The people beginning with “all we have to do” are people who have never made a decision. Most likely, they have never been in the same room where a decision is made. If the answer is easy or obvious, there is no need for a decision maker or his advisers. Those decisions get made by the execution layer. When the answer is obvious, it means people at the top anticipated it and established rules for such a situation.
A similar rule applies to those starting sentences with “We need to do” followed by their preferred approach. Anyone who has been in a decision-making role has heard that many times, often thinking, “if that were true, you would not be telling me this.” This sort of thinking is what comes from people in that advisory role. Those people are not required to contemplate trade-offs. That’s not who they are or what they do. Their job is conjuring possible solutions for the boss.
Obviously, most of people in the media fall into the final category. They are the “everyone else”, people who just follow orders. In the case of pundits, opinion makers and influencers, they play the role assigned to them. The old guy kitted out like Mr. Chips is roll him on stage to play the part of the wise professor. The bookish looking young person plays the role of super-smart nerd. All of the people we see and hear in the mass media are performers, doing what they are told.
All of this is important to keep in mind in this crisis. When someone you think is pretty smart says, “all we have to do is quarantine the country for a month” you know you are dealing with someone who has never been in a room where decisions are made. They don’t know what they don’t know. The same applies to people who say things like “we need to implement strict measures to slow the spread.” If that were true, it would have happened as soon as the virus was detected.
Public policy is always about trade-offs. This is true in the easy times and it is true in the terrible times. There are no cost-free solutions to problems. Every problem presents a set of trade-offs. Decision makers know this and thus avoid million-dollar solutions to hundred-dollar problems. At least the good ones do. Those who rise to the top and fail are usually the ones who get the trade-offs wrong. In the coming months, we’re going to see a lot of that as the decision makers navigate what comes next.
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