Ken Lay's after-action review
It is scarcely surprising that public-opinion polls show military leaders earn more confidence, admiration, and respect from the public. It is not just that military leaders engage in activities that provide service for the common good rather than just personal enrichment, as is the case for many business leaders. Military leaders are also much more willing to publicly admit when things have gone wrong and operate in a system that encourages reflection, truth-telling, and learning.
People who told Ken Lay that there might be accounting problems in Enron were accused of being disloyal. Not as extreme an example as you might think--my own reward for questioning the value of business education was to be told I was "spitting in the soup." Organizations enforce conformity and for the most part organizational leaders seem to prefer hearing lies that reinforce their impression that everything is all right rather than the truth about what is working and what isn't. The public intuitively knows that if you are going to fix problems, you need to understand, as completely as possible, what they are.
The military has after-action reviews built into their management processes. Military leaders writing in military publications debate and question the wisdom of decisions and seek to learn from the experience that accumulates through action. Military leaders, concerned for the welfare of the people they lead, try to do their best and when they make mistakes, which are inevitable in human action, they don't dodge responsibility.
All of these behaviors separate them from way too many corporate leaders who avoid responsibility--note the use of the passive voice in statements such as "mistakes were made"--fail to tell the truth or seek it, and in general display behavior that is more self-protective than it is oriented to helping their organizations or their people.
There are many fairly simple lessons that corporate leaders could learn from emulating military leadership practices. Let's hope that learning starts soon, because public opinion of business and business leaders appears to be low and falling.
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