I was listening recently to a business owner talk about an employee's "attitude problem." Initially, I took the comments at face value. Later I asked, "What's an attitude problem? Is his attitude good or bad? Is there one universal measure of attitudes or of problems? Is this measure timeless and exact? Is it situational or perspective based? What's the context of the organization and marketplace environment ? are these static or dynamic?"
If you're over 50 you'll remember the photo of Vietnam War protestors placing daisies in the barrels of M-16s as soldiers stood in formation. Many political leaders and most of our parents and grandparents talked about the "attitude problem" of these "long-haired hippie freaks."
Now with the hindsight of nearly 50 years ? we should perhaps celebrate the positive and passionate attitude of these "visionaries" and second guess all those in power who condemned the aforementioned "freaks."
Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense for LBJ and JFK and a business executive. He was well educated and talented. Most of us would have loved to have him in our organizations. Unfortunately he, by his own admission, was wrong in his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. As it turned out, the protestors were right.
For those of you too young to remember this war, consider instead the student in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago staring down the muzzle of that tank. To freedom-loving Americans his attitude was great -- courageous and positive. To executives in the "C-Suite" of the Chinese government he was a "freak" with an "attitude problem." I'm guessing this "attitude problem" may have been eliminated. Someday perhaps China will celebrate that protester.
In his New York Times article on the death of Robert S. McNamara Tim Weiner provides insight into the man.
"He's like a jackhammer," Johnson said. "No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He is too perfect."
McNamara concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own action in connection with the war, confessing in a memoir that it was "wrong, terribly wrong."
He had spent decades thinking through the lessons of the war. The greatest of these was to know one's enemy ? and to "empathize with him," as Mr. McNamara explained in Errol Morris's 2003 documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."
"We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes," McNamara said. The American failure in Vietnam, he said, was seeing the enemy through the prism of the cold war, as a domino that would topple the nations of Asia if it fell."
My interpretation of this article and of McNamara is that he was too focused -- too sure of what he knew and too unaware of what he didn't know. I'd bet that he was surrounded by "yes" men and women encouraging him. There was probably a scarcity of folks with "attitude problems" to challenge him, his decisions and his perspective.
He or his inner circle had too much power and not enough restraint on that power. The inner circle treated him differently from the soldiers.
President Eisenhower in 1960 had warned about the dangers of a military industrial complex. Unfortunately we the people did not hear that warning. We continued to let the military do what the military does -- make war. I'm guessing the generals, colonels, and sergeant majors that run the armed forces discounted that warning from President Eisenhower and played instead to the audience of one that was Secretary of Defense McNamara. The rest is history.
Now fast forward to each of your organizations today. Are people in your organizations challenging who you are, what you do and what you say? Is there even a remote possibility that they are right? Will history prove them right?
Are you still serving the customer the way you did decades ago even though you know the customer, competition and the marketplace have changed? Have you given any credence to the protestors that are (to the status quo - your management team) a bunch of "freaks?"
Have you put yourself in the skin of your employees, competitors and clients and looked at the marketplace and your organization through their eyes?
I wonder if you, the business owner see the same generals, colonels, and sergeant majors that the soldiers in the frontline see? How will you and the marketplace judge your performance and results 10 years from now? I hope you don't have the regrets McNamara had.
August 5, 2011
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