Saturday, May 30, 2009

How CEOs and Presidents mess up: a case of the U.S. border security saga

Each president is in a certain way a prisoner of the structure of power.

---Hugo Chavez

Until former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush squared off in a debate in Toronto, I believed that the relentless thickening of the border between the United States and Canada was due mainly to ignorance, paranoia and myopia. I also believed that if we could “hit” those roadblocks head on with evidence seasoned by diplomacy and some creative thinking, then we could stave off the “an error of a hundred miles from a slight deviation of a hair’s breath”.

Whoops, it’s far more complicated! Ignorance of a different and more serious order: those at the top have no idea what it’s like to cross the border. The power gap (or bubble) is the real driver of ignorance. How does one counter that?

The stunning realization hit me when both Clinton and Bush professed ignorance about the June 1, 2009 date when everyone must have a passport when entering the United States either by land, sea or air. As reporters in the major newspapers reported, both men were “befuddled”:

Clinton: “I literally don’t know anything about this. And most Americans don’t. I promise you’ve got my attention.”

Bush: “I’ll be frank with you Frank (directing his comment to the chair of the debate, Frank McKenna, former Premier of New Brunswick). I don’t know about the passport issue. I’m sorry to claim ignorance but….I guess I am. What happened to the E-Z pass?”

The legacy of the 9/11 disaster lives on: same mistakes. The guys at the top don’t know what’s going on. Why? Their privileged positions enable them to escape the ordinariness of life. Sure, Bush is now scooping up his dog’s poop after a sabbatical of eight years but I’ll bet he’s never gone through the hassle of the U.S.-Canada border crossing, ever. Ditto for Bill.

This is a CEO/President problem in any organization. Take Nortel which is a shadow of its former self, teetering on oblivion. Back in John Roth’s time at the helm, I was asked to help its major research lab in Brampton to “get with the program”, code for having to make a 90 degree turn in its strategic direction and start aligning itself with Roth’s vision. This was an order.

The lab, which had grown into a creative and vibrant ecosystem of hundreds of engineers, software designers, programmers and the like, dutifully generated, through many brainstorming sessions, an exciting roadmap forward. It took about 6 months—a quick turnaround. People were pumped and engaged. Then, without warning, Roth disbanded the lab. A team that was an in-house strength for Nortel never had a chance to help the organization adapt. All those relationships and talent wasted!

The insider “intelligence” was that Roth was never informed well enough, if at all, about the lab’s value—current and potential. People speculated that the “power bubble” prevented Roth from being better informed. With no strong advocate, the lab disappeared into oblivion. Perhaps this was the “deviation of a hair’s breath” that, if prevented, might have helped Nortel be more resilient when the technological meltdown followed shortly thereafter.

Are we seeing the same phenomenon now with the U.S. border security issue? It seems eerily similar. The people at the very top (the Presidents) not aware that the genie is really out of the bottle and impending disaster of a bigger kind lurks around the corner.

Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance”: once we have made a judgment, we embrace confirming information and discount disconfirming information. We hold the view in place by tagging the confirming information with a positive emotion and the disconfirming with a negative emotion. In the common vernacular, these are called “pigheaded” decisions. History is replete with copious examples of leaders falling prey to such emotional tagging, unable to “see” reality and the best solution, as a result.

Will Barack Obama be able to transcend the power bubble and the cognitive dissonance that goes with it? The jury is out.

Check out S. Finkelstein, et al in the January/February 2009 Ivey Business Journal or their book, Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You.

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