How Negative Leadership Screws Up Organizations

John Robb is pointing today to a great diagram by Steven Mason (PDF) that illustrates John Boyd’s teachings on how positive reinforcement by leaders can create a strong organization, and negative reinforcement by leaders can undermine it.

It’s written for military audiences, but to my mind it’s just as applicable to the business world. Ask yourself how many companies you’ve worked for where the managers distrusted and closely managed their subordinates behaved in the ways described by Boyd’s negative-reinforcement model. Lord knows I’ve worked for a few :-/


Sandy Smith

May 22, 2004
6:22 am

OK, the cynic in me can’t help but note that Janis Karpinski clearly adhered to the first model and not the second.
The much harder question is–how do you generate meaningful and deserved trust in an organization from top to bottom?

Jason Lefkowitz

May 22, 2004
7:51 am

The top model is not Karpinski-style management. Notice how it stresses “objective-driven orders”. The idea is that those at the top are involved and engaged, but in an appropriate way — by setting a direction, establishing boundaries, and then letting their subordinates be creative in how they reach the destination within those boundaries.
Karpinski did none of that. She just plain abdicated her responsibilities. Her failure to set appropriate boundaries and make it clear what the mission of the Abu Ghraib prison was is a big reason why her troops could be led to do the things they did, either by their own dark impulses or by orders from military intelligence (depending on who you believe).
A unit managed along the first model would have been one where the troops would have felt comfortable telling MI to take their torture schemes and shove them, because (a) they knew that they were out of bounds, and (b) they knew their leadership would back them up if they took the initiative in saying so.

Sandy Smith

May 23, 2004
2:45 pm

Objective: Get information on the “dead-enders”.
The top model actually doesn’t discuss boundary-setting. In fact, it suggests that rules and regulations will be less in a trustful organization.
So in this case, with that objective and no boundaries, what happened at Abu-Ghraib was almost inevitable. They met the objective in creative ways with no process-setting (or even review) by management.
I would suggest that a useful addition to the top model would be the boundary setting that you identify as the key missing ingredient.

Jason Lefkowitz

May 23, 2004
3:37 pm

I’m putting the diagrams in context when I talk about boundary-setting. Boyd’s bete noire was bureaucracy; he spent his life tilting at the Pentagon windmill, and it eventually destroyed him.
It’s important to note the distinction between formal rules (the kind propagated by bureaucracies) and operational boundaries (the kind set by local leaders). I made the distinction between “rules and regulations” and these operational boundaries because of the diagram’s inclusion of “regulations” — this is a Boyd-ism for “clueless meddling from the top”.
The top model suggests that regulations will be less, but it does not therefore imply an anarchic organization. It suggests that regulations will be less so as to clear the way for local leaders, who are presumably better informed about changing conditions than the people upstairs are, to set appropriate boundaries on their own.
This is relevant to Abu Ghraib because there would appear to have been a failure on several levels to set those appropriate boundaries — from Rumsfeld (remember his suggestion that the Geneva Conventions were obsolete?) on down. But nobody ever took the time to clarify exactly what the new rules were. This put the soldiers on the ground in the unenviable position of having to either (a) take a moral stand without knowing if anyone would back them up, or (b) just follow orders.
Notice, too, how the orders the MPs claim they got from military intelligence were not objective-oriented, as the top model would recommend; they were process-oriented: “Give him a rough night.” The MIs were meddling in the MPs’ chain of command. If the MPs’ had been managed along the top model, they would have had the confidence to push back; being led by the feckless Karpinski, they did not.
You’re right that the diagrams do not completely encapsulate all of Boyd’s thinking, but I’m drawing inferences from other stuff he wrote to come to these conclusions. Sorry if I didn’t make that clearer in the original post. I still think the diagrams are quite useful, though.