WALKING A FINE LINE

THE IRAN CONTRA AFFAIR is an obvious candidate for enshrinement as a case history at the Harvard Business School: How hands off should a manager be?

President Reagan, an admittedly laid-back impresario, likes to appoint good people and give them their heads. Jimmy Carter, his predecessor, stayed up all night studying original documents. He seldom went into a meeting or negotiation less well informed than his subordinates.Is one style better than the other? It's hard to say. It is certainly important to give subordinates responsibility, to let them "fly the airplane" from time to time. Otherwise, they have no incentive to take initiative and to become creative. On the other hand, one can't wholly delegate responsibility without coming a cropper, a la Reagan.

Editors know that. You have to let people reach. At the same time, you have to ensure that they follow responsible journalistic behavior. Some will underperform, but the reward comes from those who far exceed expectations.

The president's failing, the Tower Commission concluded, was not his management style but his failure to check on what his minions were up to and his failure to insist on accountability. It's a fine line between too much hands on, stifling all initiative, and too much hands off, letting things get out of hand. Intuitively, though, that's where a good manager should tread.

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