Opportunity lost

Charlie Baker believes in management, but he missed the chance to lead

The second of two takes on the new book by the state’s governor and his former chief of staff.  Read the first one here, by Republican activist Ed Lyons.

ALMOST 50 YEARS AGO, Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik published a ground-breaking article whose title posed a question that scholars and practitioners have been debating ever since: “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”    

Zaleznik believed they were. “Managerial culture,” he wrote, referring primarily to executives in corporations, “emphasizes rationality and control. Whether his or her energies are directed towards goals, resources, organization structures, or people, a manager is a problem solver.” Leaders, he said, by contrast, are “active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them… The influence a leader exerts in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and in establishing specific desires and objectives determines the direction [an organization] will take.” 

In their new book, Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done, Gov. Charlie Baker and his former chief of staff, Steve Kadish, argue that the most important job of an elected official – particularly a governor – is to “provide strong public services” by solving managerial problems in government. The book, like Baker’s two terms in office, captures almost perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of seeing the role of governor almost exclusively in managerial terms.   

 The book is broken into two parts.  In Part One, Baker and Kadish introduce their “Results Framework,” based on four principles: “People are Policy,” “Follow the Facts,” “Focus on How,” and “Push for Results.”  I was surprised by the list, because all of these ideas date back at least 40 years, to a time when I was at Harvard Business School and Baker was at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. 

The ideas actually move backwards in time. “People are Policy” was first coined at the beginning of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. “Follow the Facts” urges managers to get out of the office, a concept developed by Hewlett Packard in the 1970s. “Focus on How” has its origins in the debates over corporate structure in the 1960s. And “Push for Results” riffs on the quote “what gets measured gets managed,” coined by Peter Drucker in the 1950s. Baker and Kadish seem to be largely unaware of the newer concepts about management appropriate to the Internet age, ideas such as networking, collaboration, horizontal decision-making, and enhanced creativity.  

Baker seemed to conceive of the governor’s office as a kind of super consulting firm, in which experts from his team would parachute into the middle of some messy breakdown of government systems and inject new people, ideas, energy, structure, discipline, and deadlines.  To do so, Baker created a “Strategic Operations Team” in the governor’s office to “offer real value-added support.” The team would not engage in policy discussion but “be all about execution,” he writes, introducing practices such a dedicated team, intense data analysis, thematic workstreams, and tight project management.   

On the surface, all of this seems helpful. Massachusetts state government has 151 departments and agencies and 44,000 full-time employees all pursuing sometimes incompatible objectives set by the Legislature or the heads of agencies in the executive branch. There is a permanent need to combat inertia through review, reform, and new direction. This need for professional management skills, for example, is reflected in the structure of those cities in Massachusetts that elect mayors to set direction and then hire city managers to administer the details. Shouldn’t the governor be a kind of super city manager? 

The answer is no. Politics, though turbulent, is an essential mechanism for deciding what future we want to build together, how to balance competing values and opportunities, when to infuse older traditions and structures with new ideas and directions. And it is clear from his statements in the press and his views expressed in his book that Baker, at his core, holds politics in disdain.  

This is not so much a question of personal preferences but of a much deeper mindset. As business literature has relentlessly pointed out, a key difference between managers and leaders is the attitude of the individual executive towards chaos. Managers find chaos deeply troubling and try to impose order wherever they can. Leaders often find chaos exhilarating, because flux and turmoil offer the possibility of changed attitudes, new priorities, and super-charged hope. Baker’s impatience with politics is highlighted right on the book flap: “Wedge issues” – his term for controversial questions – “may be great for making headlines, but they do not move us forward,” he says.   

Baker’s voice, though studiously measured and in some places welcomingly gracious, reflects the prevailing elitist view of those trained for top corporate jobs in the 1980s. Because management problems are technical problems, people should leave the complex job of running organizations to the experts.   

The strengths and weaknesses of Baker and Kadish’s approach become more evident in Part Two of their book, “Applying the Results Framework.” In each of four chapters they describe crises in breakdowns in government where, in their opinion, their SWAT team approach worked beautifully. Their accounts are striking not only for what they say, but also what they leave out. 

Steve Kadish, often the-behind-scenes guy in charge of the thorniest issues faces the early years of the Baker administration. (Photo by Frank Curran)

Surprisingly, the first three all come from 2015 – the first year of Baker’s first term. The first crisis they describe is in February, just weeks into Baker’s term, when the online Health Connector broke down during open enrollment, leaving thousands of citizens panicking about securing health care. Baker forced the resignation of all the board members appointed by Gov. Patrick and hired two people who had worked for him at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. They then pushed more people out, brought in consultants, and set up a 45-day plan to put the enrollment system back on track. Baker and Kadish write with pride that “intense adherence to a project-management approach meant that significant improvements were made in timely and effective ways.” 

Having discussed the problems of technology and operations, Baker and Kadish’s discussion of health care in Massachusetts abruptly stops. There is no account of what Baker thought about the structural distortions in health care – runaway costs, pharmaceutical profiteering, monopoly practices, national health insurance, or inadequate access in poor communities. 

In his section on transportation, Baker again turns to the very beginning of his first term in 2015, when the MBTA – and much of the state — was shut down by the series of immense snowstorms the became known as “snowmageddon.” The authors describe the new team, analysis, procedures, and timeline, but again leave out key explanations and background. We hear about the actions of the new Fiscal Management Control Board to oversee the MBTA, but they gloss over the painful fact that T had four different managers within Baker’s first two years.    

They also zero in on the “severe underinvestment in infrastructure” as a key problem, but leave out the embarrassing reason why the MBTA had so little money. When the Weld administration discovered in the 1990s that the estimated costs of the Big Dig were skyrocketing from $2 billion to $15 billion, they had to find an income stream they could promise to lenders. Weld’s secretary for administration and finance, Charlie Baker, decided to divert money from public transportation to pay for this massive subsidy of automobile travel.  

The remaining two examples, on the state’s child welfare agency and the state’s COVID response, also suffer from an overly narrow focus on putting in new management systems while leaving out any discussion of larger context. In these accounts we again see how well Baker and Kadish’s personalities and framework correspond to Zaleznik’s distinctions. “The manager asks: ‘What problems have to be solved and what are the best ways to achieve results…?’” Zaleznik writes. Being a manager does not require genius or heroism, but “persistence, tough-mindedness, hard work, intelligence, analytical ability, and perhaps most important, tolerance and goodwill.” 

Leaders generate strong feelings and are “temperamentally disposed to seek out risk or danger, especially where the chance for opportunity and rewards appears promising,” Zaleznik writes. Managers “tolerate mundane, practical work,” whereas “leaders sometimes react to mundane work as an affliction.” Managers appeal to efficiency and logic; they assume that people will be motivated by the obvious improvements that changes will bring. Leaders “project their ideas onto images that excite people.” They know how to inspire people and to build loyalty. By touching people’s values and emotions, they push listeners toward innovative thinking and fill them with a passion to participate. In Zaleznik’s view, the influence of leaders “changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary.” As a result, in his view, leaders “have much more in common with artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers.”   

This is where Baker frequently failed. Even when Massachusetts desperately needed leadership, he did not have the training, personality, or inclination to move out of the familiar world of spreadsheets and cost curves to speak to us as human beings who were worried, confused, and eager for reassurance and direction.  

There were moments when Baker tried to summon us to a higher calling. Though he resisted Mayor Marty Walsh’s insistence early on the pandemic that most institutions and businesses be closed, he never caved into the Republican Party’s furious accusation that the mask requirement was an infringement on individual rights. There was more at stake than how we felt as individuals. We wore our masks not for ourselves, he said, but for other vulnerable people. He urged small gatherings for the holidays in 2020.    

The irony of the COVID crisis in Massachusetts is that even as Baker was trying to offer reassurance, the managerial systems he and his team devised fell disturbingly short. Despite his past successes with the Massachusetts Health Connector, the online system for getting tested or signing up for a vaccination collapsed into chaos. When in February 2021 former Harvard Kennedy School of Government dean Graham Allison compared the results in Massachusetts with those of other states along four key indicators – including deaths and vaccinations per capita – our state ranked from 42nd to 48th, far behind states like Connecticut and even West Virginia. For a governor who insisted that his management framework was key to getting “important work done,” it must have been deeply disturbing to have received three F’s and a D. 

We also needed someone who thought far ahead. Once, when I was visiting a Democratic town committee on the Cape, I asked the group to describe the responsibility of a governor. People said, “signing bills into law,” “handling our tax money,” and “running the government.” Then one older woman raised her hand and stood up. “It is the governor’s responsibility to look into the future, to see what is coming towards us, and to help us to prepare,” she said simply.   

Over Baker’s two terms, that just didn’t happen. One can search through his annual State of the Commonwealth speeches with their thousands of words about incremental changes, modest achievements, and the benefits of bipartisan comity without coming across a single stirring phrase. Year after year, Baker stood in the same spot from which past leaders, including John F. Kennedy, challenged the people of our state and our nation to embrace our challenges and our future with courage – and asked us for nothing.   

Then why, one must ask, was he widely seen as a success? Why did so many news stories about him cite the same poll that continued to identify him over a period of years as the “most popular governor in the country?”   

The answer, I think, is straightforward. People detest the manipulation, hate, and slander that have increasingly dominated our politics and that became so much worse during the slime circus created by Donald Trump. To their exhausted ears, Baker’s banality often seemed mature and soothing.   

Baker was also frequently given a free pass because human beings often have trouble visualizing the consequences of things that did not happen, or the results we would be living with today if our leaders had made different choices. There are a few areas in Baker’s record where we can glimpse the cost of his mechanical style. 

The first is on climate change, the suicidally destructive force that is bearing down with increasing intensity every year and paralyzing so many with anger, fear, and despair. In his first run for governor, in 2010, Baker shamefully tried to win favor with the national Republican Party by saying that he was “not smart enough” to know whether human beings were changing the atmosphere. In his first term he did little and said nothing.   

At the moment when he could have dazzled us with a vision of a just and sustainable economy built on clean energy and then mobilized people – especially young people — from every corner of the state, he hesitated, stalled, and resisted. Instead of pushing Massachusetts to be the national and global leader we often claim to be, Baker largely wasted eight years that the planet simply did not have.   

When he tried, belatedly, to push through a Transportation Climate Initiative to address the huge emissions that come from vehicles, he failed to overcome the terror of a tiny increase in gas prices that caused his peers to back out. 

Though attacked and ridiculed by Donald Trump and scorned by his own state party, Baker has done little to oppose their wanton campaign to destroy democracy. And even when he seeks to move forward on a progressive topic he finds himself stymied. He recently has tried to create more affordable housing by encouraging building near transit stations, but he has met near universal resistance from the officials in cities and towns that voted for him.  

Meet the Author
In the end, no matter how many helpful tips he and Kadish compiled for their book, Baker was never comfortable with the vision-setting role that Zaleznik says characterizes leaders. As a result, he’s likely to be remembered not for his management techniques but for the missed opportunities to set a bold new direction that we needed him to embrace — and that he failed to see or to seek.  

Bob Massie is a lifelong activist on shareholder rights, economic and racial justice, and climate change. He received a doctorate in corporate strategy from Harvard Business School in 1989. He served as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1994 and was a candidate for governor in 2018.