In an interview with the Information Security Media Group publication, White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel admits to having no practical experience with the subject matter. Daniel claims that “being too down in the weeds at the technical level could actually be a little bit of a distraction” to his job of advising the president about ongoing and emergent information security issues.
The White House filled the position with Daniel in May 2012, having previously served as the intelligence branch chief in the White House Office of Management and Budget. He believes that the lack of practical experience in the field is offset by masters’ degree in national resource planning and public policy degree. He also credits previous government experience for success in the position, augmented by his martial arts experience.
As the Electronista article states, Daniel isn’t responsible for the technical details of a fix or solution to a country-wide issue. Rather, his job is to assess the situation, and report to the president, and bring other agencies into the fold and “on the same page” about an issue. Senior fellow Jim Lewis at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies claims that the lack of experience doesn’t hinder Daniel’s role in the position, claiming that “Computer scientists were in charge and they did a terrible job, being lost in the weeds and largely clueless about policy. You need someone with a strategic point of view and policy skill to make progress.”
Every time I read something like this, I get extremely upset. This theory mostly assumes that there are only two types of persons in any organization, the leaders who can handle any kind of situation and the specialists whose only responsibility is to execute the master plan. This is great for many executives, because unless they are found to be personally responsible for a major screwup, it shields them from any accountability. If something goes wrong, it is never because the plan was flawed in the first place, it is due to poor execution, which can almost always be blamed on managers who are lower on the organizational chart. The problem of course, is that this is simply not true. Most issues in a company, specially in high tech, can be directly traced to a lack of a clear vision that can be communicated to the employees for proper execution. Execs who do not understand their product or market in detail are unable to produce a winning growth strategy, it is that simple. In this context, former GE CEO Jack Welsh is often mentioned as an example of a leader who didn’t need to be an expert in washing machines to turn around a very complex, diversified company. However, there are few Jack Welshes in the world and it is easy to find many examples of successful leaders who were experts in their markets, specially if we only consider fast growing markets, like cyber security. My personal opinion is that Jack Welsh, who undeniably achieved great success at GE, is now used as an example by mediocre executives to try to justify why not knowing anything in their respective fields is not a problem, and this is simply wrong.
MBA programs from prestigious universities are in large part to blame for propagating this idea that lack of experience is not a problem. Business professors usually tell their students from the beginning that they are destined for greatness and that they will learn how to make decisions by learning from the experience of great company leaders. However, unlike what many execs seem to believe, leadership is not about taking decisions by choosing one of the options presented to you by your team. It is about setting a direction and executing on a plan that you have designed. That requires both experience and guts. I don’t know about Daniel’s guts but he clearly lacks experience in cyber security, a skill that is extremely hard to acquire, and that will significantly hinder any attempts he makes to define a “strategic point of view”. Therefore, from my point of view, he is clearly a poor choice for the job. That doesn’t mean that his government experience is not important, it clearly is, but he should at the very least have recognized this shortcoming and explained how he planned to address it, instead of simply dismissing his critics. President Obama is accountable for having chosen Mr. Daniel for this position, but he also shares part of this responsibility. Leaders, to be successful, need to have zero tolerance for mediocrity and that includes their own. Those who accept a leadership position need to be convinced that they are a good fit for the job and that they will be able to deliver results. Integrity begins with an honest introspection exercise to find out if you are the right choice for the position.