Tuesday, November 29, 2022

When to contradict your boss?

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By Barend ter Haar.

Do not argue with your boss, seems like a good rule of thumb if you want to advance in a career. So when in 1997 a captain decided to land a Boeing 747 on visual approach, even though the weather was bad, the first officer and the flight engineer, both of whom realised how much risk the captain was taking, limited themselves to very polite hints like “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot”. The captain didn’t take the hints and crashed the plane against a mountain ridge, killing 228 people.[1]

It is a classic case: a boss values his intuition higher than the technical knowledge of the experts while the experts do not want to contradict him, although they have good reasons to doubt his decision. A deadly disaster can result.

This is exactly what happened in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, caused millions of refugees, wasted trillions of dollars and boosted terrorism. In To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,  Robert Draper compellingly describes the astonishing series of events that led to this disaster.[2]

The official reason for the invasion was the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq and the danger that these weapons would be provided to terrorists. These allegations were presented to the UN Security Council by Colin Powell, the widely respected US Secretary of State, with such conviction that many governments, such as that of the Netherlands, supported the invasion out of loyalty to the leader of the free world, without critically scrutinising its rationale.

However, both allegations were based on evidence that was either very weak or false. In reality Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction and it did not support terrorism. On the contrary, it was the US invasion that gave terrorism a major boost by plunging the country into chaos that IS gratefully exploited.  

US experts knew how weak the case against Saddam was, but the Bush administration wanted to remove Saddam from power and was only looking for arguments to do so, not for arguments against taking action. So that is what the CIA provided.

What lessons should we learn from this? What to do if your boss, be it a captain or a president, gets stuck in tunnel vision? Should we not challenge him, when the consequences of a mistake can be so catastrophic? 

[1] See Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers, chapter seven: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

[2] Penguin Random House 2020

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