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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Security isn't just a technical problem

Question: It's now obvious that Homeland Security officials misjudged the public reaction to new airport security measures. What should leaders do when confronted with widespread backlash against a decision they still believe to be sound and in which they have invested considerable money and reputation? Should the TSA try to weather the storm or plot a strategic retreat?

Fighting the war against terrorism is not solely a technical problem.

Of course, the TSA should make a strategic retreat, albeit something less than that phrase implies. Let's call it a mid-course correction. The willingness, capacity and skill at making mid-course corrections are hallmarks of good leadership.

Leadership is an iterative art. The TSA put forth what was presumably the technically best set of procedures, one that would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist getting on an airplane to close to zero. That's their job. But in the broader picture, TSA's strategy, whatever it is, will not work unless it has the consent of the governed, in this case the people who take the flights.

TSA's initial plan was an intervention. Good leadership involves making such a move; then, rather than holding on to it obsessively, watching to see what happens and adapting, if necessary, based on what you learn.

A paradox of leadership is that on the one hand you have to totally believe in what you are doing, but at the same time you have to be open to the possibility that there is a better idea out there.

If there was a failure on TSA's part here, it was that they assumed that because they had come up with the technically correct solution, everything else would fall into place. But providing security at airports, like the fight against terrorism generally, is only partially a technical problem. It is also an issue of balancing--and choosing among-competing values. Here, how much personal privacy are we as a country willing to give up in return for our security? There is no technically correct answer to that question. And the evidence that the TSA failed to anticipate the public push-back is that they did not have a slew of famous people-politicians, athletes, movie stars, television personalities--lined up to defend their plan and counter the resistance.

What makes leadership difficult is that the technical response is useful but not the end of the story.

Making appropriate mid-course corrections is an honorable and noble act of leadership. Go for it, TSA.

By Marty Linsky

 |  November 23, 2010; 9:18 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Managing Crises Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: TSA's right and responsibility | Next: Adding insult to injury

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Get serious! Nothing TSA is doing has anything to do with stopping terrorism! It is politics and money; BS and Money; creating petty bureacrats and money, avoiding responsibility and money; having power and money! With cockpit doors sealed, another 911 debacle can not occur; so the danger is less than before 911... so give up the stupidty already! Baaaaa!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | November 24, 2010 11:08 AM
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Just because a problem can be technically solved doesn't mean that it should be done. There are myriad examples of technical solutions that should never be implemented (either because they are wrong or because they violate the law).

This issue fundamentally boils down to a few issues:
1. Is it morally right?
2. Is it constitutionally legal?
3. Is it the best use of resources that could be used elsewhere?

On all three counts there are serious questions.
1. One must weigh the moral benefits versus the moral costs. Is it better to violate 850 Million passengers rights so that they can be safer? These are highly suspect.

2. One must weight the legal benefits versus costs. There has been a case for a legal benefit of protecting "national security". Is that claim valid and justified relative to the legal counterclaims of the 850 million violations of constitutional rights? Furthermore, does this meet all of the legal standards of protection? Is it uniform, is it justified? This is highly questionable.

3. Is this the best and most appropriate use of government funds? The TSA budget is $42 Billion for 2011. Add to that cost the economic costs to travelers of the additional security measures. It is estimated the total is more than $80 Billion dollars.

Are the actions of the TSA most consistent with the best use of those funds and economic costs? Are all of the other pursuits the government could spend those funds on less important than the TSA?

Here again the likely outcome is that the government is not selecting the best use of funds, nor of applying the economic costs to the American people. The government could improve, protect, and save more lives through other means if the TSA budget were cut by only half and airport security was less onerous to passengers.

In summary. The TSA has not proven anything, nor have its supporters.

Posted by: theartistpoet | November 24, 2010 12:39 AM
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Unfortunately, and whatever TSA would like to believe (or convince us to believe), the x-ray scanners and more strenuous pat-downs do not reduce the possibility of a terrorist getting on a plane to almost zero. (Luckily, if you prefer to look at it that way, they actually increase the probability that a terrorist will detonate in the line, taking out the expensive machine, a few TSA employees and probably a few more innocent passengers. This will likely be a real boon for airline travel in the US.)
There are well-known and documented means of a terrorist getting an explosive or weapon on an airliner which neither of these techniques adequately addresses. Indeed, there's doubt that the current x-ray scanners could even routinely pick up another underwear bomber.
Never mind the invasion of privacy and possible health danger, what possible value do these techniques actually provide?
It really is terror theater, and at the expense of the innocent flying public. If you think you're better protected, you've just drunk the Kool-Aid.

Posted by: josephvmorris | November 23, 2010 9:17 PM
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I agree that recognizing a miss-step and correcting it is important, however I disagree that this wasn't a mistake on TSAs part.

The highly invasive nature of the updated process is obviously wrong. It's an absolute infringement on our rights. We are being lied to regarding the images; how rvealing they are, who sees them, and what is done with them. We know this because the images are on the internet without the knowledge of the person whose image is being exploited.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 23, 2010 3:22 PM
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