Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stalin, ceo's and managing the downside

I was reading Anne Applebaum’s review of two new books on the relatively unexamined battle of Moscow in the NYRB and came across another description of Stalin’s reaction to Hitler’s surprise attack on July 22, 1941. Despite repeated warnings from spies about Hitler’s imminent invasion, Stalin refused to believe it. A week after the invasion, as the Nazi’s took Minsk, Stalin failed to show up in the Kremlin. On the next day, he was still missing, having retreated to his nearby dacha in a wooded area outside of Moscow. The politburo arranged a secret meeting, set out for his dacha and--as described later by one of his inner circle--found him:

“in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, ‘What have you come here for?’ He had the strangest look on his face, and the question was pretty strange to….”
The shock of failure was apparently too much even for Stalin. He feared the war was already lost and thought the politburo had come to kill him.

It reminded me of many less dramatic examples of leaders who fail to respond or adapt to failure. Our current administration is the most dramatic example. But even in business, it seems, that leaders have a hard time recognizing that what they are doing just isn’t working.

This seems to be particularly true for leaders who have long history of success, or even just having their way. They have become so accustomed to the world conforming to their will that when a person or circumstances defy them, they are paralyzed into inaction or more commonly, a repetition of the very actions that got them into trouble in the first place.
Our current administration again comes to mind.

But so do many of the managers and leaders I’ve worked for or around. They were great leaders when things were going well, but when the wheel of fortune turned against them, they were unable to change strategy or tactics. They continued to push the same rock up the hill, regardless of the number of times it rolled back down on them. They seemed convinced that the problem wasn’t their methods or misjudgment or changed conditions, but lack of energy or will. All they had to do was the same thing again, but this time, harder, faster, better.

Everyone knows it’s hard to change, particularly when your way has worked well for so long. But the inability to change course seems a particular vice of strong leadership.

Stalin famously regained his nerve and appeared four months later in Moscow, during the anniversary of the October revolution, defiantly watching the traditional parade with the German army only a couple dozen miles away. In the intervening months, Stalin had developed a new and more ruthless strategy that would defeat the Nazis--though at an enormous cost. It was Hitler who ultimately got stuck in Russia, unable to imagine a world that could stop his invincible army. Like so many leaders before him, he would undermine his own success and drain away his resources through an insane repetition of failing strategies.


Beecham said...

There's something so striking about the Stalin example and I wonder whether it's because it seems utterly unusual. I can certainly extrapolate and see, as you do, innumerable examples of people persisting in the same mistaken course (long after it seems apparent to others that it is mistaken). But my guess is that it's rarer to find people arriving at this stark moment of realization that they've been wrong.

I wonder whether you are lumping together two very different responses to the problem of changing one's thinking (and action): being paralyzed into inaction seems crucially different than continuing in a repetition of behavior, especially action that started the problem in the first place.

The first, at least in the Stalin example, suggests that there has been a recognition of sorts (an anagnorisis), but that the mind struggles to comprehend the meaning of this recognition and to move beyond it, and the shock of it, into appropriate action.

The second and more common behavior that you describe, of the leader who continues to push the rock up the hill, doesn't seem to feature the realization or recognition, indeed seems to refuse that recognition, and persist stubbornly in the same path.

It seems unsurprising to me then that Stalin is in the end able to change course. Our current administration, stubbornly persisting in its attempts to push the rock up the hill, has refused any such moment of recognition, unfortunately. (Wish it could have a Eureka moment!)

Finally, I wonder at how difficult it is for us to admit cognitively and psychologically such a profound recognition of failure in our thoughts, assumptions, or methods. Again, I think there's something profoundly unusual in the person like Stalin who can face such a recognition, and all the more profound is the person who isn't paralyzed by that experience.

Charles said...

What you describe was, and perhaps still is, a central element of a lot of management consulting training programs. Chris Argyris did a lot of pioneering work in this area. Here's a link served up by Google:

Your fourth paragraph hits the proverbial nail: successful people -- such as students at elite colleges, or, a few years later, bright young consultants -- are generally successful because they have mastered a certain set of moves, and when they fail, they don't know to do. They are, as you wrote, "paralyzed into inaction or more commonly, a repetition of the very actions that got them into trouble in the first place."

Our current administration may epitomize the failure to respond or adapt to failure, or it may simply epitomize the power of ideology and the arrogance of power.