Is Hagel qualified?

For now, Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, to become defense secretary. Last week, the Senate came up two votes short of the 60 needed to move his nomination forward. Senators are expected to reconsider the nomination when they return from a break Monday.

The recent vote followed Hagel’s stumbling performance at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing last month. It was a halting and poorly informed appearance that included mistaking a key U.S. policy on Iran and admitting, “There are a lot of things I don’t know about.”

Republicans’ stated reasons for holding up their former colleague’s nomination range from outstanding questions about the Obama administration’s handling oflast September’s deadly U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, to Hagel’s tepid support for Israel. This being Washington, the confirmation hearings were also used to settle old scores.

But one question that didn’t arise is whether Hagel is qualified to be CEO of a $700 billion defense enterprise.

The new defense secretary will face immediate challenges, none of them bigger than how to transform the enterprise without harming America’s national security and economic recovery. For example,  despite a two-month reprieve from sequestration, defense is bracing for budget cuts of up to $500 billion. This follows the $487 billion already cut from its projected spending over the next ten years as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. These reductions are a first step toward reining in the Pentagon, which is responsible for about 20 percent of all federal spending.

Defense spending has increased by about 46 percent since 200 1. If the Pentagon were a nation, it would be among the world’s 20 biggest economies.

Which brings us to the now-famous sequester. Unless a deal is reached to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, spending cuts that fall equally on defense and domestic programs will be triggered.

Financial issues are not the only challenge facing the new CEO. There are the core global issues of dealing with Iran, North Korea, the Middle East and terrorism.

Still, no questions have been raised about the nominee having the required management experience and proven track record to serve as CEO and manage a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

Ah, management. Presumably the most essential requirement for organizational success.

During the second half of the 20th century, it became increasingly apparent that the challenges of managing large organizations had grown so complex that only those with the right mix of skills and experience could effectively meet them. Managerial success depends on configuring and coordinating multiple activities to create value for all the stakeholders. No one person has all the qualities of the ideal manager and leader, but how does Hagel score? Does he bring the requisite combination of managerial experiences and personal leadership characteristics to the position? How does he stack up against successful CEOs who have run multibillion-dollar enterprises under difficult circumstances?

Jack Welch turned sclerotic giant General Electric into a heads-up growth company. Lou Gerstner became CEO when everybody was writing IBM off as a leftover from another era and made it a cuttingĀ­ edge leader in information technology. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase showed that a financial conglomerate could really get its act together. All are strategic leaders and managers who transformed and revitalized their enterprises.

Given the Pentagon’s budgetary and strategic challenges, the Senate and the American public should be asking tough questions about the nominee’s managerial and leadership abilities. Sure, Mr. Hagel served his country honorably, but that doesn’t mean he is qualified to serve as the military’s CEO any more than driving a car qualifies you for the pole position at Indianapolis.

originally published: February 23, 2013