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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

TSA's tone-deaf strategy

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?

The recent TSA screening controversy debacle coupled with the publication of Al-Qaeda in Yemen's strategy should cause the leadership in Homeland Security to rethink what they are doing and how they are doing it.

A few facts:

1) According to a 2008 article in The New York Times, a survey by IATA (the airline trade association) revealed that airlines faced almost $10 billion in foregone revenue in a two-month period because of passenger disgust with the conditions of air travel; although some of this discomfort comes from the many customer-service-challenged airlines, some also comes from the conditions at airports, particularly in the U.S. where security rules vary from place to place (and, for that matter, seemingly from moment to moment) and are not designed with the customer in mind.

2) Al-Qaeda has a (shrewd) strategy of attempting to bankrupt the U.S. and its allies by doing small, low-cost things that prompt large and very expensive responses--for instance, the multiple millions now being spent on the full-body screeners in response to last December's underwear bomber and the stepped-up screening of packages in response to an (unsuccessful) terrorist effort that cost about $5,000.

3) Al-Qaeda apparently can recruit people who will do anything; so when, as will inevitably happen, someone tries to smuggle explosives aboard an aircraft in a body cavity, what is TSA's response going to be then?

4) More importantly, as a senior intelligence official told me a few years ago at a conference organized for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence: when terrorists reach the security check-point, you have already lost. While less dramatic than downing a flight, blowing up a bomb at a security check point is no less disruptive to air travel or catastrophic to the people killed and injured.

Leaders need to anticipate where things are going, not just react to past events. If there were to be an explosion in a shopping center, will there be shopping center entry screening? Bus station passenger screening? Train, including commuter train, screening? Are there no limits to the expenditures TSA will make and the personal intrusions they will countenance? Other countries--Britain during the Irish Republican Army terrorism, and Israel--have learned to balance considerations of cost, effectiveness, the disruption of daily life, and the impossibility of making every public experience perfectly safe. The U.S. should learn from these, and other, examples.

Leaders are responsible for allocating resources in a cost-effective fashion and telling people the truth. In the case of TSA and its worldwide counterparts, intelligence that uncovers and can disrupt terrorist acts before they take effect works best, and the reality is that it is virtually impossible to stop every terrorist act.

As has been documented numerous times, people are poor judges of relative risk. We over-process dramatic events and disregard more common, albeit less newsworthy, threats. Even including the tragedy of 9/11, air travel is safer than driving. While we worry about bombers who might kill hundreds, 45,000 Americans die each year because they don't have access to health insurance.

Of course leaders shouldn't always respond to public pressure and complaint if they have logic and a strategy on their side. But sometimes there is a "wisdom of crowds" that should not be ignored. TSA and Homeland Security appear tone-deaf and unwilling to consider the logical next steps (proctological exam anyone?) of a security strategy that focuses on everyone and on intervention at the last possible moment--just as passengers or packages are going on the plane. Good leaders learn from everywhere, including from competitors, their own clients and customers, and by recognizing that the most fundamental task of leadership is to steward resources wisely.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  November 22, 2010; 8:05 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Four ways to evaluate such a big decision | Next: Give us liberty (and, while you're at it, save us from death)!

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"bankrupt the U.S. and its allies by doing small, low-cost things that prompt large and very expensive responses"

EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING!

That underwear bomber sure did some damage even if the bomb didn't go off--some awfully expensive damage.

Posted by: skepticLA | November 30, 2010 3:19 PM
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Absolutely! Thank you for pointing out that if anything is found during the security search, the terrorist would likely set it off right there and possibly kill more people than he could on a plane.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 23, 2010 3:02 PM
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Well said, sir! Now if TSA and DHS will only LISTEN for a change, rather than DICTATE. I don't see it happening anytime soon...

Posted by: dstreet208 | November 23, 2010 9:29 AM
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