Meet the Chief Executive Fool
Nuclear disasters, record-breaking oil spills, financial meltdowns? What can a fool tell us when smart people have failed?
I need to be clear by what I mean by "smart people" (there are all kinds of 'smart').
Let's agree that there's "historic smart" like Einstein, Curie, Fuller - and hundreds of other über smart minds who create the stuff that builds civilizations. And there are smart people whom we personally admire. I admire Jack Kirby partly by the way he lived his life, but also for his über creator smarts that conjured up a Universe of comic book characters that have helped make Stan Lee one very famous man.
How about the smart people in your life whom you depend on day-to-day? In my case, my wife is the smartest person I know. Not only does she know where I put my damned glasses, she knows when I'm about to lose them. Maybe you know smart people that you don't often think about, like that talented tech geek who keeps your office network running? How about anyone else in your life who puts out the kind of inspired smarts that makes you want to dab dance on the street? At this moment, I'm thinking about my handyman who fixed my garage door in 30 minutes with a simple trick that ought to be on YouTube.
We celebrate smart people because of the way they can make our lives better and by the way they amaze us with their genius. But I think we have unfair expectations about smart people. Sometimes smarts are fleeting and given to moments of inspiration. Carpe diem! The fact is, smart people make mistakes. They are, after all, human. Left to their own devices, smart people can also fail in the most spectacular ways imaginable.
Nevertheless, the world's top corporations are dazzled by "smart people"; they pursue them with bundles of money, wads of stocks, and bags of benefits. F500 corporations recruit the smartest that investors can buy. Why? Because it looks good on paper: recruit smart people to grow our businesses into smash hits. The board is on board and the suits of the C-suite nod in unison.
Who do they think they are fooling?
Take the smart people at Wells Fargo Bank who were caught doing some pretty stupid things. The question wafting around these nimrods: how could any rational mind conclude that creating millions of fake accounts in the name of millions of real customers was a smart move?
Let us not forget the legions of smart people who blew up subprime mortgages and triggered the biggest international banking crisis - ever. Nor should we marginalize the stunning smarts of Samsung executives who will be forever known as the innovators of the exploding smartphone. What of the leaders of the Democratic party who jury-rigged a nomination and inaugurated one of the most stunning political fails in modern American politics? And how about other serial shake-my-head epic failures at Volkswagen, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and Toshiba?
Sometimes we can't tell what smart people are thinking. Some turn out to be clever criminals playing so loose with the rules so as to deny that rules ever existed. How ignorant the smart person becomes when all is laid out in daylight for us to examine and cringe! With all of these "smart" people around, is it such a surprise to see the rise of leadership so utterly bereft of common sense? Why are we shocked when Club Fed is reserved only for the most egregious fraud (see "Bernie Madoff" and "Enron") and the rest escape with barely a slap on the hand? What did Donald Trump say about being smart and not paying taxes? About hiring all the smart people.
My good friend, Subir Chowdhury, is what I call a "stand-out" smart guy. He's written 15 books on management, three of them non-fiction best-sellers, about business and quality management. His takes is far more analytical and conciliatory in a recent blog post:
Large corporations and especially government and government agencies rely heavily on management consensus for their big decisions. The nature of the agreement could be based on several criteria like risk assessments, mitigation, cost factors, profitability, and so on. No single factor is the driving force in any decision, especially when there are political elements involved. Moreover, that’s how disasters can happen. ... it is very likely that few people thought that the risk levels were high enough to change their minds or offer alternative solutions. More than likely, they never heard the warnings because, by that time, the signs had been filtered out or diluted to the point that they didn’t stand out. Ultimately, the decision makers did what many people do: they just went with the flow.
In other words, if enough smart people are in the room who agree with each other, they'll ignore warnings (from attorneys or engineers, for instance) and make decisions that can lead to disastrous events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, both Space Shuttle crashes, and the Fukushima nuclear reactor melt-down. In my conversations with Subir, he noted that in every post-event analysis, management issued reports that use the words "unforeseen circumstances."
I asked Subir about that during one of our 'coffee outings' we take near his home in Rancho Palos Verde. Can we accept this idea that there are some events that cannot be predicted—even by the smartest people?
He was thoughtful "Nothing is unforeseen," Subir responds. "There are only two types of data that cause catastrophic engineering failures like Deepwater or Fukushima: data you didn't understand or data you chose to ignore."
As it turns out, in these cases, ignorance is not bliss.
The world's a stage, for a Fool
Wouldn't you know, William Shakespeare pondered the same answerless questions. You find all of the principal roles in every corporate and political crisis ever hatched in his well-rehearsed plays. Like the misled hero who stumbles into calamity followed by hapless relatives, gawking followers, and idiot courtiers who wring their hands when ill-gotten gains are afoot and toss shrugs when the jig is up. In a few of these dramatic diversions you can find a finger-jabbing antagonist who accuses the hero of being a gutless leader (Godspeed, Senator Warren). But where are the fools?
Shakespeare's fools are gadflies who entertain us as truth sayer, fortune teller, and the barking dog of reason when all reason is tossed out the window. But not just any fool can be a fool. The character is often irreverent to the point of insubordination, taking bold license to diss the boss and live to tell the tale (at least for a while). As the fool serves up comic relief from the building drama, he narrates events and relationships with god-like clarity to give the audience insight into the oncoming doom. As Issac Asimov notes in his book Guide to Shakespeare, "The great secret of the successful fool - that he is no fool at all."
There are so many fabulous fools from Shakespeare's heavy but very able pen: Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream, Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, and Yorick, whose skull appears in Act V of Hamlet to prompt a fond (foolish) memory from the main character. My favorite is the eponymous Fool of King Lear who belittles his master's plan to divide the kingdom for the benefit of his three daughters, two of whom are rotten to the core, while retaining the prerogatives and privileges as king of all. Obvious to all but Lear himself, the plan is fraught with miscalculation, misjudgment, and misunderstanding. Which leads Fool to utter his famous line:
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Alas, Fool's word is not enough to fill the void of somber sensibility. For that task, Shakespeare must draft another character - the Earl of Kent - to fill in as a softer kind of fool to issue one last grim warning.
See better Lear.
Indeed, should we all see better. Perhaps this is where "transparency" needs to go, to have a narrator explain to the rest of us stupid people where the smart people have failed. Lear's crime was not that he schemed for profit but that others took advantage of his weakness. What if he had listened to Fool and the Earl of Kent? Of course, we wouldn't have much of a play, but imagine if the boardrooms of every corporation was equipped with a handy wit like Fool?
How cool would it be to appoint a "chief executive fool" to be our klaxon of doom? The "CEF" would not mock executive privilege, because to do so would be banal and far below his intellect. Instead, the chief of all fools will ridicule obvious errors in judgment, fraud, and hubris. Ah, but this role is filled by whistleblowers you say? NAY! The whistleblower comes too late. What our court of executives needs a REAL TIME fool to bound around the boardroom and broadcast C-level misdeeds AS they are conjured. This would be the ultimate form of transparency and public disclosure, wouldn't it?
Of course, the smart people will resist. Evil wins by taking away public sight. The powers of the ever watchful fool would be simply too dangerous. As Shakespeare demonstrates, smart people would take decisive action. At the end of Act I, The Earl of Kent is led off to exile and forced to watch from a distance as his beloved Lear sinks further into deadly despair. Somewhere along the action, even Lear’s “poor fool is hanged." Threatened by such malice, along the way Fool utters:
I must think of something funny to say now! Smart people who think they’re witty often turn out to be fooled, but I know I’m not witty so that I might pass for smart. What did that philosopher Quinapalus say? Ah yes, “A witty fool’s better than a foolish wit.”
Sadly, Fool's greatest enemy is surprisingly obvious. No matter how wise or witty, the fool will always be dismissed as irrelevant by a skeptical audience. While his observations may be sober, objective, and realistic the Fool will be roundly scorned by everyone even as the connivances and vices are betrayed; even as betrayals are betrayed. For, as history (and Shakespeare) shows us, all truth is dismissed until after the errors and omissions have done their damage.
What will our chief fool do then? He'll step into the limelight of center stage and remove his crown. Then with an easy smirk, he'll address the audience:
Oh, such bitter regret that you were not smart enough to prevent this most recent calamity. But, dear friends, take comfort when I testify that the other fools were forewarned.
Or perhaps our Fool could fight for more prominence in one of these tragic plays? I wonder how that would go down in a big management meeting if the CEO of Fools looked around the table and asked: Before we begin, anyone want to confess their ignorance?