Decision Matrix: What Should the U.S. Do About Syrian Refugees?

Many models have been developed to help us make the best possible decisions. In political matters, one sometimes wonders if our leaders ever use any of them! Nevertheless, let’s have a look at a hot political matter as a case study to see how, if politicians were to use an optimal approach, their thinking might go. Our aim is to use a topical issue, one in which we all have a vested interest, so that we might see how the use of a decision matrix could serve us in our important decisions.

The model you should use depends upon the nature of the decision. Are you able to reduce the decision to a simple yes/no? If so, the most common approach is to simply list pros vs. cons, apply a method to weigh them against one another, and whichever side the scale tips, that’s the way you go. That’s great, but life is usually more complicated. It’s actually helpful to retain multiple options because it opens up the universe of potential action. So how might you effectively weigh five or more options against each other?

To illustrate, let’s look at the question of how best to help the people in Syria who have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing armed conflict between as many as a dozen distinct groups. The agitators are polarized to varying degrees between the Shia government of Assad and Sunni rebel groups (which includes ISIS trying to expand its nascent caliphate.) There are Kurdish groups involved in the fighting as well who are friendly to neither. The whole area is now a powder keg as Russian and Iranian interests align with Assad, American interests most closely align with the Kurds, and the Sunnis employ terrorist tactics as a part of an expansionist vision that ultimately affects all of western civilization. For the sake of brevity, we will have to paint with a rather broad brush.

With that qualification, there are basically five responses available to the United States. At the extremes, we could either open the floodgates to as many as we can possibly relocate to America or refuse to take any action on their behalf whatever. Between these poles are three basic possibilities – bring as many as we can as long as they do not show up on intelligence reports as active in extremist or jihadist efforts, apply a much higher standard and bring only those who can be positively shown to be non-participants in jihadist activities or groups, or bring none here but expend American resources and influence to find them suitable refuge in surrounding countries.

To determine which of those five options is best, we must analyze the expected costs and benefits. Again, this picture in reality is complicated, but for the sake of our discussion, we’ll condense them down to four considerations. First, how does our action benefit the refugees? Second, how does our action benefit Americans and their interests? Third, what are the costs involved? Finally, we must consider the risks of each particular course of action.

Considerations like these are often difficult to quantify in absolute terms. But we may agree to and assign relative values. While such an approach doesn’t yield absolute answers, the resulting analysis offers insight as to which action would yield the best net result. The following chart is one such possibility:

decision matrix syrian refugees 1

Of course I can’t be certain that my calculus is accurate considering that I am not privy to intelligence reports, international negotiations, or detailed cost analysis. This is however, my best shot as a thinking American citizen who pays attention to current events.

In light of the high burden, risks, and cost of bringing Syrians in large number to the American homeland, it may not be surprising that Options 4 and 5, those which avoid this action, are preferable. But it is rather close between Options 2 and 3, conditionally bringing some of the Syrians to America and Option 5, simply taking no action. This warrants a closer look.

When you use a decision matrix, you should recognize that not all considerations are equal. For instance, is it a responsibility or obligation of the American government to see to the welfare of non-Americans? To the degree that you believe it so, is this consideration equal to the Constitutionally-mandated task of securing the defense specifically for American citizens? No. We should help, but not to the degree that it hurts Americans.

Likewise, how do we really determine cost and risk? We have the short term logistical cost of screening and moving Syrians. Then we have long term costs because they are not all going to be able to support themselves in a new country where they do not speak the language and have little to none of the skills in demand in an advanced country. So that means there will be an ongoing financial and possibly social drain.

It is also unclear whether moving these people to America is best for them in the long term. Refugees are desperate and vulnerable. As they stabilize, they’re likely to desire a return to normalcy. Is it unreasonable to anticipate that this might be more difficult in a country far removed in both distance and in culture from their home? I assigned the highest relative value, 5, to helping the refugees by bringing as many as possible to America. It could easily be lower.

The risks are perhaps the most volatile and controversial portion of the issue. The Obama administration thus far seems to downplay this part of the decision matrix. President Obama himself chided the Republican Presidential hopefuls critical of his proposed actions saying that they seemed to be as afraid of Syrian women and children as they were of CNBC moderators. I haven’t heard any say so yet, but his opponents might point out that not two hours after the President’s snarky statement, a woman blew herself up in a suicide bombing in besieged Paris in an attempt to murder police. They might also ask the President where these women and children to whom he refers are in the light that 72% of the Syrian refugees are thus far fighting-age men. This is a suspicious anomaly.

Regardless of degree, it is not reasonable to discount completely risk factors, especially considering that jihadists have admitted that infiltration through refugee groups is one of their strategies. We could argue about whether 5% or .5% of the refugees pose a serious threat. The fact is that the more who come to America, the greater the risk that more terroristic attacks could result.

In order to incorporate the disparity between risk factors, we can apply a weighting scale. In the following chart, we simply acknowledge that risks and American interests are, say, twice as important as costs and the interests of Syrian refugees.

decision matrix syrian refugees 2

An interesting thing happens when you take this deeper look. Yes, Option 4 retains the preferred spot. But Option 3, the selection of relatively fewer refugees under stringent screening vaults into second place. In both analyses, Option 1 remains a distant last place and should be removed from consideration. (Unfortunately, this seems to be the path that the Obama Administration prefers. One might wonder how their considerations and weighting would differ from this one, and why.)

Whether you gain consensus in your organization through a formal decision matrix, the process is worthwhile. It encourages the team to find answers in murky areas. It helps focus discussion on facts rather than invective.  As a leader, you both teach your team to see how you reach your decisions and you also learn from them as they shed light in areas you did not previously consider. This habit is good for organizational health.

Benchmarking the POTUS (Part Two)

In this second installment of benchmarking the job of the President of the United States, we have assembled a group of stakeholders who directly interact with the President. The task for this group is to identify the most important key accountabilities, their priority ranking, and to specify how each will be measured.

Last week we suggested a crowded stakeholder panel of sixteen. As reader Steven mentioned, we could have rightly included others such as someone to represent the perspective of another country, perhaps a prominent world leader. But rather than expand the list, logistics require us to limit it further. So our panel today consists of the following participants:

  1. The POTUS (to represent the role itself) – Barack Obama
  2. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (to represent the military) – General Joseph Dunford
  3. Secretary of State (to represent the Cabinet and diplomatic interests) – John Kerry
  4. Attorney General (to represent the legal system) – Loretta Lynch
  5. White House Chief of Staff (to represent staff who directly report to the POTUS) – Denis McDonough
  6. A sitting Governor (to represent the States) – Nikki Haley, South Carolina
  7. The Prime Minister of Israel (to represent the interests of our allies) – Benjamin Netanyahu
  8. The president of the Chamber of Commerce (to represent commercial interests) – Tom Donohue
  9. Speaker of the House (to represent the Legislature, budgeting and the people) – Paul Ryan
  10. A specially selected ordinary citizen (to really represent the people) – You

There is tension in the room. Those who serve the current administration line up ideologically against the others. You can especially feel the chill between Netanyahu and Obama. I know I have my work cut out for me, so I take a deep breath and brief the panel with the following:

“You’ve been selected because you represent important perspectives with respect to the duties of the President of the United States. There is diversity of opinion represented here as well, so we will probably have to agree to disagree on more than one specific. What we need from each of you is your top one or two priorities that you see would describe success for a person serving as President of the United States. To be most useful, key accountabilities need to be top-of-mind memorable. The goal is not only for the person in the job to remember them, but also those who interact with the person so that they are best equipped to contribute to the person’s success. We’ve found that limiting the list of Key Accountabilities to 3-5 best accomplishes this. This means that some of the accountabilities for the role will be left out, maybe some very important ones. This is fine, because studies indicate that success is usually best achieved by keeping the main thing the main thing.  Pareto’s Law also tends to obtain here: the top 20% of your responsibilities yield 80% of the results.

Logistics have already required us to limit this process and will continue to do so. We will not be able to consider everything. For this reason, a benchmark, this one included, is not set in stone, but subject to continual revision as we discover more about what success looks like in a role and how the whole organization is best served.

So let’s start there. What precisely is our organization? Is it the government of the United States? The whole of the American people? The entire world?”

McDonough speaks first: “Of course the President serves the people, but he does so through the apparatus of the Executive branch of the federal government, which serves the people. To be most effective, the President must put the right people in positions to carry out his will, which was mandated via his election. He must then empower them to succeed.”

To the surprise of some, Netanyahu agrees: “You may think that I believe that as leader of the most powerful force in modern geopolitics, I would suggest that the American President serves all people. After all, America can and does make such a difference for people suffering in all places. But you would be wrong. A leader must serve his people. It is a special and unique circumstance that as the leader of the American people, it appears to some as though the President serves all people. This is only true because of the universal truth and high aspiration codified in your Constitution. But also in the minds of the authors of that profound document was the wisdom to recognize the folly of becoming entangled in the affairs of others. The people of Israel appreciate the support of the American people. But we do not look to your President to represent us.”

I ask: “So is it true that the healthier and more successful the government, the healthier and more successful the people?”

The room is divided on this question. After a long discussion, we settle with the recognition that the government is a tool, a means, and that the health of the people is the paramount determiner of success. “How do we measure the health of the people?” I ask, knowing that this will likely stoke a second debate.

It does, and it takes the better part of an hour. At the end, we are able so summarize, saying the people are healthy when there is:

  • Justice – people are treated fairly in a system that is blind to race, creed, status, etc.
  • Prosperity – people can pursue their potential and earn a living that meets standards
  • Safety – that it is reasonable to feel safe from attack from criminals or foreign invaders
  • Peace – no wars, no domestic violence

“Are these some of the Key Accountabilities for the President?” I ask, as I write them on the white board.

“This list is nice, I like the intention. But it doesn’t really describe what must be done on a day-to-day basis,” Obama suggests. “I spend most days listening to people on one hand and on the other doing my best to persuade people. When that doesn’t work, you just have to do what you believe and then be willing to take the heat from those folks who see things differently.”

“Above all, to be effective a President must be able to communicate his priorities, decisions, along with pertinent information to all of the vested groups.,” Donohue says.

“This includes working hand-in-hand with the people’s representatives in Congress,” says Ryan with a degree of irritation.

“Let’s keep this as non-partisan as we can,” I caution. “But we will capture this as a potential consideration.”

Panelists offer their priorities and we end up with the following list:

  • Effective public speaking
  • Builds coalitions
  • Works with Congress to codify needed policy changes
  • Proper preparation and deployment of armed forces
  • Champions the causes of the disenfranchised
  • Recognizes and recruits talent
  • Appoints supreme court justices and other influential officials
  • Effectively delegates to and empowers personnel
  • Meet with foreign dignitaries and negotiates favorable treaties
  • Empathetic listener
  • Understands macroeconomics
  • Faithfully executes the laws of the land
  • Understands governmental structures, functions and standards
  • Strong vision, futuristic thinking

Many of the heads nod as we review the list. But you have questions, and offer: “Doesn’t it matter what the vision for the future is?”

Now you’ve done it. The room erupts and things devolve along a partisan line. Netanyahu, Ryan, Haley, and Donohue argue that the President should reduce the influence and reach of the Federal government, while the others argue that agencies should be improved and empowered. I realize we are not going to reach consensus on this, since we have struck fundamental philosophical differences. On one side, the feeling is that the people make their own way. On the other, the feeling is that people won’t be able to do that and require the help of a strong Federal system.

I suggest a break after which we will winnow and rank the named priorities. We reconvene with cooler heads, and the discussion proceeds in a productive direction. Dunford and Lynch, along with Donohue and Ryan, like the list of four as much as they do the list of fourteen, feeling that this is a much better definition of success. The others don’t see how you can directly connect the job of the POTUS to these macro end results, and favor continuing to focus on things that one person can reasonably control.

I share my view: “Both sides have valid points. Let’s look at both lists together and generate the top four. What is the one thing that rises above all others, the one thing that the President must accomplish in order to be successful?”

After much more discussion, the group is split, but agrees that the top three must include Justice, Prosperity, and Safety. The order is not agreed upon, because there is disagreement about which condition precedes another.

You’ve been quiet throughout this discussion. So I turn to you and ask: “What would you say – of these three, which precedes the other?” (I look forward to your response.)

“Okay,” I continue. “What does the President do or not do in order to result in Safety, Justice, and Prosperity?”

After another lengthy discussion, a theme emerges. The President must a) respect the laws, and b) communicate effectively. I prod to reach specifics: “How do you measure respect for laws?”

Haley makes a comment under her breath, something about a pen and a phone. Normally, I would seek to uncover the feeling behind a remark such as this, but we’ve had enough contention and I knew that it would not move us forward. So I let it go. The discussion goes on, but does not lead to a clear, usable result.

“How do you measure effective communication?” I prod.

I hear various answers offered: poll results, regular press conferences, “fireside” chats, and a clear, easily navigated web-based resource that explains issues in detail. Ultimately, the feeling is that this is difficult to measure too. At this point, there is a feeling of frustration in the room, one I share. I feel that the panel is growing weary, and is not likely to push through to a robust result. I knew this was going to be a difficult process, but for the first time I began to wonder if a reasonable benchmark simply cannot be reached.

Just as I’m about to float the idea of reconvening at another time, you take the dry erase marker from my hand. You go to the white board, and write the following four Key Accountabilities:





(Please send me your answers.)

Benchmarking the POTUS (Part One)

In my work with clients we commonly create job benchmarks.  A job benchmark is a tool that is used to concisely measure and prioritize the key accountabilities for a position in order to define success in terms that best contribute to organizational health. Once these are determined, a natural extension is to use psychometric tools to identify and quantify the behaviors, drivers, and competencies necessary in fulfilling the critical tasks in that position. This knowledge favorably disposes us to optimally match a person to the role and, just as importantly, create conditions that lead to success and best provide ongoing development.

This practice is an integral part of a comprehensive People Strategy and improves the attraction, selection, development, and retention of talent and thereby performance. The approach is so powerful that I assert that every important position in every organization should be benchmarked. Too bad we can’t do this for one of the most important jobs of all – President of the United States.

Or can we?

If we could, it would be a big job, because the position of POTUS includes lots of responsibility and numerous and often conflicting constituencies. But hey, fortune favors the bold. So let’s give it a shot.

I should first qualify this thought experiment. Elections are, ideally, supposed to fulfill some of these functions. Candidates explain their priorities, what they propose to do about them, and why their personal attributes mean that potential voters can be confident that they will execute successfully. The problem we have is that the Machine (comprised of vested interests – current public sector structures, media, the two major Parties, and their deep-pocketed constituents) obfuscates. The Machine’s criterion for a successful President is limited to “someone who will help expand our power.” This leads to the purposeful avoidance and misrepresentation both of what success looks like as well as what is true about candidates. This undermines our ability to discern.

For that reason, we will have to make some assumptions. This is not ideal because if you miss on an assumption you miss on your conclusion. This limits our ability to be precise or even scientific. But the experiment should nevertheless give us a more in depth and robust analysis than is typical in our current political discourse.

This week we’ll cover the benchmarking process. Next time we’ll define the key accountabilities for the POTUS and how they might be measured. The final installment will focus on personal attributes and how those might be applied to the current crew of Presidential hopefuls. The aspiration is that this exercise yields useful and perhaps unique insights.

When benchmarking a role, you begin by defining how the role serves the greater organization. Often you start by analyzing an existing job description. In the case of the POTUS, we need to begin with the U.S. Constitution.

The office is established and circumscribed in Article II. In Section 1, the office is described: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” The text goes on to stipulate the terms of service (four years), manner in  which the President will be elected, and requirements of eligibility: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

This is a broad requirement. Today, as many as 150 million people may be considered for the job. There is no mention of qualifications such as educational degrees or professional backgrounds. The Founders do, however, give us some insights about the highest priority for the POTUS at the end of Section 1 in the description of the Oath of Office: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Clearly the Founders were invested in creating a government of laws, not of personages. They did not include a limit on number of terms; this was not added to the Constitution until the 22nd Amendment limited the number of terms to two in 1951 after FDR served four presidential terms. It should also be noted here that the Constitution, as a whole, was created as a document of “negative powers.” This means that if an established authority is not specifically empowered in the document, rights and powers remain with the States and with the People. This aspect of our Constitution has been repeatedly contested over the past 100 years, as those who want more leeway in executing Federal authority seek to expand their basis. This dynamic will become important later as we prioritize key accountabilities.

In Section 2, the Founders flesh out the duties of the Office of the President of the United States. Therein the President is established as Commander in Chief of military forces and in charge of executive agencies. The President is also given the ability to grant Pardons, except in cases of Impeachment. The ability to make Treaties is handled as follows: “He shall have the Power, by and with the Advice of Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur…” The President is empowered, also “with the advice and consent of the Senate,” to place individuals in positions of influence and power. These include “Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for…”

Section 3 calls for the President to give an annual State of the Union report to the Congress. Today, this is conducted in person. It does not have to be and historically was not. Section 3 also gives guidelines wherein the President can call and keep the Congress in session as well as adjourn them in times of dispute. The President is also empowered to conduct diplomacy by not only appointing Ambassadors, but receiving foreign emissaries.

And that’s about it. The rest of the expectations about the role of POTUS have been built over time but in the main are conventions and traditions, not mandates.

In order to identify, quantify, and prioritize key accountabilities, we typically assemble the stakeholders who interact with the person in the role and whom that person serves. In the case of the POTUS, we might include representatives of the whole of the people, most likely to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives as well as House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders. We could consider the Governors of the fifty states. Since the President is given responsibility over the various departments of the Executive Branch, representatives from each could be considered. Today the number of such Departments is 645. A central duty for the President is acting as the civilian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. So it would seem wise to include the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the process as well.

Constituents outside of the government also merit consideration. Representatives from media, industry, financial, legal, and medical sectors, and any number of special interests would thereby deserve to be included. We could conceivably fill a large hall and not have everyone properly represented.

If we were to do that, the process of gaining agreement about the priority of key accountabilities and their measurements would be unending. In almost all benchmark processes, logistics require us to impose limitations. Typically, the discussion flows best if there are 6-9 participants. So we’ll have to cherry pick.

Let’s say we pick the Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Minority and Majority leaders, the Attorney General, and Secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. We could possibly include one or two more that represent areas of critical need today. So let’s include the head of Homeland Security, the White House Press Secretary, and the Chief of Staff. The problem with this list, other than it leaves many federal and State functions unrepresented, is that it also under-represents private sector constituents. So let’s at least invite the CEO of a major corporation along with the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It would be nice to have at least one sitting Governor too so that the States aren’t left out.

It also makes sense, when possible, to include people who have served in the role in the past. So we might include a past President in our group.

I don’t feel great about this list, as too many important perspectives are missing. The President should serve all of the people, not just important constituent groups. So let’s include you in the meeting as a representative of “ordinary” Americans. That gives us a group of sixteen. It’s a large group, double the optimal size, so everyone will have to be respectful and concise.

Now that we have our stakeholders, we’ll conduct an imaginary discussion about the key accountabilities of the POTUS from their perspectives. Each participant should think about how the POTUS adds value to the country as a whole and to their interests in particular in preparation for the discussion.

We’ll conduct this discussion in next week’s article. In the meantime, I’d like to invite you to personally participate in this process. What do you think the top one or two priorities for the POTUS should be? What tangible, measurable evidence indicates that the POTUS is successful in meeting that responsibility? Try to look at these two questions from the perspectives of some of the other personages in the list of stakeholders. How might their answers differ from yours? If you can, please forward your responses to me over the next few days. I will look to include them in the “discussion” next time.

Benchmarking the POTUS (Part Three)

I appreciate the responses I received from Part Two of this series. Space prevents us from exploring them all here. Here is what we together have come up with as a list of the Key Accountabilities for the POTUS:

  • Faithfully executes the laws of the land
  • Defends the American People from physical and economic threats
  • Shares a cohesive leadership vision with Congress and the American People
  • Empowers appointees to assure their success

The next task for the stakeholders is to determine the measurements for these four Key Accountabilities. “What is the tangible evidence that the President faithfully executes the laws of the land?” I ask our assembled stakeholders.

“With all due respect to President Obama,” says Speaker Ryan, “It would mean that you can’t select which laws to prosecute and which ones to ignore. As an example of a breakdown of this faith, I suggest the failure of this administration to enforce our immigration laws.”

President Obama cannot let this go: “There is no way to prosecute, much less deport, the millions of undocumented people living in America today. The problem is one of acceptance and tolerance, not the letter of laws that were passed by folks who could not have foreseen the current problems. This is why I’ve been after you in Congress for some sensible legislation.”

I try to head another argument off at the pass. “This highlights one of the major problems we have in evaluating the performance of the POTUS. In a system as complex and incongruous as ours has become success in the eyes of some looks like failure in the eyes of others. What, if anything, are the universal elements of these accountabilities – the parts over which there would be no controversy?”

“It seems to me that this is a matter of character and of principle,” says Governor Haley. “It is a question of trustworthiness. So I would measure this by how consistently the person does what they say they will do.”

“This can be difficult in the midst of the realities of global politics. The winds blow one way, and the next day they can change direction,” says Secretary Kerry.

“Reactions such as force deployments may change, but the leadership vision should be constant,” says General Dunford.

“The issue of character and trustworthiness seems to me to apply to all of the Key Accountabilities,” says Attorney General Lynch. “Let me ask you this, Mr. Dardick. How do you measure character?”

It’s a simple question. But it is not an easy one to answer, especially when you’re interviewing someone for a job. We have to specify pertinent traits. Then, we need to accurately evaluate those qualities, without the benefit of working with them over a longer term – how they behave, what they value, what drives them, how they look at the world, and by extension, what their capacities are. We need some agreed upon scale and a proven instrument that provides predictive value. Some psychometric tools give us these kinds of insights. But their use in the workplace, especially in response to matters of “character,” is tricky, and must be properly handled. They must be used in the context of many other considerations.

So I respond: “We tackle this question in the next step of our benchmarking process, which is how we match a person to the role. The election process reveals the character of presidential hopefuls, as does the person’s record. But for those for whom we don’t have this information, and to minimize bias, it’s best to use validated psychometric instruments to accomplish two important objectives. First, to identify the attributes needed for success in the role. Second, to find candidates who closely match our specifications. The match won’t be exact, so once we select a person, we use their personal psychometric profile to optimize the role for them and to develop the competencies most critical for performance in their role.”

Rather than spend our remaining time developing the specific measurements for the current Key Accountabilities, we decide to dive into this phase. I’m good with this. I’ve already made a mental note that some kind of special review panel, one that does not yet exist, would need to be created to continually evaluate and provide feedback in the effort to provide meaningful measurements. They would likely use surveys and other key indicators to correlate the desired outcomes identified in the Key Accountabilities with the decisions and actions of the President.

We spend the next 90 minutes responding to the questions in the instrument that I selected, always keeping in mind that we are answering for the role, not a person. This process spurs some discussion, but thankfully it lacks the polarization of earlier exchanges. I’m feeling good that the team is finally coming together to collectively determine the best answers.

Once we’re done with this phase, I thank all of the participants for their valuable contributions and adjourn the panel. I will now go back and compile the results into a formalized benchmark. The final version is typically used to attract, select, develop, and retain the best talent for critical roles. Once someone is hired (elected, in this case), we often produce a gap report to highlight the differences between their personal attributes and those of the role itself. I typically use three or four technologies to get as accurate a look as possible. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to zero in on just one of those.

Originally developed in the 1950’s through the early 1970’s by Dr. Robert Hartman, it is a profile that utilizes the science of axiology to describe the way that a person develops their judgment of what is good or bad in very specific way. The instrument isn’t a true judge of character or ethics, but it does reveal an uncanny amount of information about how a person views the world and their place in it. The research of Dr. Bill Bonstetter and his scientific team, conducted over the past twenty years or so, has clarified and distilled the results of this instrument in order to link it to performance in the workplace. Their version yields outputs measured in 25 competencies, as follows:

  1. Conceptual Thinking
  2. Conflict Management
  3. Continuous Learning
  4. Creativity
  5. Customer Focus
  6. Decision Making
  7. Diplomacy & Tact
  8. Empathy
  9. Employee Development/Coaching
  10. Flexibility
  11. Futuristic Thinking
  12. Goal Achievement
  13. Interpersonal Skills
  14. Leadership
  15. Negotiation
  16. Personal Accountability
  17. Persuasion
  18. Planning & Organizing
  19. Presenting
  20. Problem Solving Ability
  21. Resiliency
  22. Self-Management
  23. Teamwork
  24. Understanding & Evaluating Others
  25. Written Communication

The responses we gave in the stakeholders meeting would have derived a chart that ranks these in order from most important, to important, to somewhat important, to not important. When completing this survey, it’s tempting to just say that they all matter, because you can make a case that this is true. The problem is that you will never find human beings for whom all competencies are rated highly. The reason for this is that there are tradeoffs between these competencies. Highly functioning people can be relatively stronger on most if not all of the competencies than others, but there will always be a range of relative personal strengths and weaknesses. So I moderated the discussion to make sure that we achieved an adequate differential.

Our Benchmark for the POTUS revealed these as the top five competencies. (I’d like your opinion if you think the list should be different.)

  1. Leadership
  2. Decision Making
  3. Resiliency
  4. Presenting
  5. Diplomacy & Tact

When matching candidates for a role, it’s helpful to not only look at the top competencies, but also the bottom ones. If a person is strong in an area, they will tend to use that strength, even if the job doesn’t call for it. So it’s wise to avoid hiring people who are strong in areas that are not needed in their role. Here are the bottom five competencies for the POTUS:

  • Conflict Management
  • Problem Solving Ability
  • Employee Development/Coaching
  • Written Communication
  • Creativity

The next part of our thought experiment is to compare candidates to these established parameters. For the sake of brevity, we’ll look at only the six candidates who are currently polling in double digits. To do this correctly, we would give each of them the instrument to complete online and then compare the results, the selection panel being blind to which candidate has which results. This further reduces bias. In this case, I’m going to have to use my imagination based upon the impressions I get from their campaigns along with their professional track records to project the results. We’ll take them one at a time:

Donald Trump:

Top Five: Decision Making, Futuristic Thinking, Goal Achievement, Negotiation, Resiliency.

Bottom Five: Conceptual Thinking, Diplomacy & Tact, Flexibility, Presenting, Teamwork

Dr. Ben Carson:

Top Five: Conceptual Thinking, Continuous Learning, Empathy, Diplomacy & Tact, Presenting.

Bottom Five: Conflict Management, Negotiation, Persuasion, Understanding & Evaluating Others, Customer Focus.

Senator Ted Cruz:

Top Five: Conceptual Thinking, Resiliency, Futuristic Thinking, Presenting, Personal Accountability.

Bottom Five: Conflict Management, Flexibility, Understanding & Evaluating Others, Teamwork, Diplomacy & Tact.

Senator Marco Rubio:

Top Five: Presenting, Interpersonal Skills, Persuasion, Resiliency, Conflict Management.

Bottom Five: Creativity, Employee Development & Coaching, Flexibility, Planning & Organizing, Self-Management.

Secretary Hillary Clinton:

Top Five: Futuristic Thinking, Goal Achievement, Planning & Organizing, Resiliency, Teamwork.

Bottom Five: Decision Making, Personal Accountability, Leadership, Empathy, Conflict Management.

Senator Bernie Sanders:

Top Five: Customer Focus, Futuristic Thinking, Leadership, Resiliency, Self-Management.

Bottom Five: Decision Making, Diplomacy & Tact, Flexibility, Teamwork, Goal Achievement.

You may not agree with my assessments. I’m certain that if the candidates were to complete the instrument, we would be surprised by much of the results. That is why these instruments are so valuable – they help us see past our personal biases.

If you’re so inclined, have a look at the lists above. Try to compare each set of personal competencies for the candidates with the POTUS benchmark. You should look at the competencies, yes, but also the Key Accountabilities. What do you believe about each candidate that would serve that person well in each of these areas? What do see that could be a potential shortcoming?

Here’s one way to look at the results. For every competency that matches either the top or bottom five, give a point. For every top competency for a candidate that appears in the bottom five for the position, and vice versa, subtract a point. Evaluating my results, Dr. Carson comes out on top with a score of 3, followed by Ted Cruz at 2, then Marco Rubio at 1. Trump, Clinton, and Sanders are all tied for fourth at 0.

If you view the upcoming debates and election coverage through this lens, you may pick up on things that would otherwise escape your notice. If this turns out to be the case, then these three weeks of work of benchmarking the POTUS will have been worth it.

The Hidden Price of Porn

Pornography is ubiquitous in our time. Just how so is difficult to pinpoint. Some studies claim it represents or has recently represented up to 30% of internet downloads. Others indicate that porn sites are 12% of all internet domains. These percentages are perhaps falling, not because there is less porn being consumed, but because of the astronomical growth of streaming media such as Netflix.

Depending upon the circles you run in, porn has a bad name. The dim view comes from traditional perspectives and observation of the negative aspects of the industry. These include the Biblical admonishment of sex outside of marriage and the call to avoid the seven deadly sins – lust, in this case, traditional standards of public decency, the desire to shelter minors from sexual material, the known deleterious effects upon marriage, the contribution to the objectification of women, the coarsening or lessening of the ability to be intimate, the support of sexual slavery and the sexual exploitation of children, the allocation of resources to criminal and/or immoral enterprise, and numerous others.

If it’s so horrible, why is porn everywhere? The biggest reason is probably the most obvious – the immediate pleasure it provides. People will do about anything for a spike of dopamine. In this sense, we’re not that much different than the lab rats who famously starved themselves to death as they incessantly hit the levers that delivered a jolt of pleasure directly into their brains. And, this just in – people like fantasy. It’s the same reason that we consume media of all kinds. There’s a reason that the stars of television and film are generally very attractive and often scantily clad.

There is even recent research that indicates that orgasms are really good for us and offer numerous physical and mental benefits. To the extent that pornography contributes to a greater number of orgasms, one could conceivably draw a positive correlation. On the surface, porn seems to deliver a great deal of pleasure and relief from life’s stresses.

Does this even the scale? You answer depends upon your moral compass. Regardless of what we may think as individuals, society as a whole seems to be voting thumbs up on pornography.

Of course pornography isn’t one monolithic thing. There are many forms, styles, degrees, and subject matter. Some people believe some of it is fine while they find other forms objectionable. So I recognize the risks of addressing the topic with one all-encompassing term. It is the same challenge as discussions of the “War on Terror,” the “War on Drugs,” or the “War on Poverty.” Just what precisely do you mean to fight in these wars?

But in all of the sturm and drang, there is a price of pornography that I do not hear discussed. It is a bit nuanced, but I suspect this hidden price may be the biggest of all. This price may have been first identified by Napoleon Hill (though he didn’t link it directly with pornography, but rather wrote about it under the term “sex energy.”)

In the classic book Think and Grow Rich, Hill devotes a chapter to “The Mystery of Sex Transmutation.” When I first read it, I was confused about what he meant. I got the vague idea that the successful men whom Hill interviewed over the twenty years leading up to this book had big libidos and yet were able to avoid becoming womanizers. I thought that his was a moral and practical observation. He simply identified character traits that allowed these men to keep their fortunes by avoiding scandal, divorce, etc.

Now I recognize with greater clarity what Hill was talking about. It was the literal direction of energy. The most successful men, the ones who collectively built the economic foundations of America and by extension the world, were channellers of their energy. They were not slaves to their base drives, but rather converted or “transmuted” this energy into their enterprises. The creative accomplishments of men like J.D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie have arguably been unrivaled ever since.

To the degree Napoleon Hill’s observations are correct, I wonder: How much creative energy has been directed into pornography that could have otherwise been channeled into businesses that create wealth, relationships that enrich our spirit, and artistic expression that beautifies and uplifts the world?

Again, the answer is difficult to quantify. Opportunity cost is notoriously tough to measure. But, here’s a feeble attempt. First we’ll have to agree on the stats. For our purposes, let’s use these: I realize they’re a bit old now, but this will be a non-scientific thought experiment rather than a serious attempt at meaningful quantification.

If 40 million people spend fifteen minutes per day on average surfing pornographic sites, that’s 10 million man-hours per day! In a year, we’re talking over 3.5 billion man-hours here. What do you suppose could be accomplished with that time if dedicated to tangibly productive activity? But this is the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t include the spiritual elements – the quality of relationships, the peace of mind, the sense of accomplishment, the freedom from guilt. It also doesn’t include the efforts of the producers of pornographic material.

It also doesn’t account for the state of mind directly after experiencing masturbatory orgasm. The release of potent endorphins such as oxytocin, serotonin, vasopressin, norepinephrine, testosterone, and the aforementioned dopamine change behavior. Some research suggests that they are biologically meant to connect us to our mate. In the absence of a shared sexual experience, the resulting behaviors have alternative and often deleterious effects. Among these is what Hill was pointing to – it saps the will, the drive to create, the gumption that propels us over life’s inevitable hurdles. I don’t know where to begin to calculate such a cost. Suffice it to say that it may dwarf the previous calculation.

Now, for any individual, these numbers may not seem all that significant. It may be that this notion is particularly dangerous. Let’s take a close look at the hidden price of porn for an individual habitual user. Let’s assume 300 days of a year, a porn addict spends an average of 20 minutes. That’s 6000 minutes, or 100 hours. Two and a half weeks of full time work. But then we have to account for the other stuff that the person would have done if they had spent that time on an activity that didn’t spend their energy, but redirected and multiplied it. For the sake of this example, let’s estimate that this represents a factor of five. So that’s five hundred hours, or twelve weeks of full time work.

To put this in the perspective of an entire forty year career of full time work, that’s 20,000 hours. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. If he’s right, and admittedly there is research to cast the figure into question, this means that this person will have forfeited the opportunity to gain mastery in two areas of life. Most people are fortunate to gain one.

The same calculus, minus the specific sexual effects, could be used for any “bad” habit – too much tv, drinking, drugs, smoking, golf, video gaming, eating, exercising, etc. Porn is particularly tough because it packs a powerful brain chemical punch and involves complicated societal factors. It’s probably best to teach young people to avoid building the habit in the first place because once in place, it’s awfully tough to undo.

The ideal society – one where most people maximally utilize their gifts and do not engage in behaviors that rob them of more preferable experiences – will never be reality. The vast majority of us are not masters of our base desires. What we do in reality therefore does not match what we would choose to do in theory. So my point is not that pornography or other detrimental indulgences should or could be eliminated. Rather, I have two goals here: 1) To remind myself to constantly work to improve my personal habits, and 2) to identify tangible ways that leaders in our society can help to elevate our culture.