Thursday, January 01, 2009

Leadership Crisis in America: Mandating Reality

NASA engineer Jeffrey Finckenor was quoted in the New York Times saying,

At the highest levels of the agency, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality,” he wrote, “followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate.”

This refusal to deal with reality has been a long standing feature of our Leadership Crisis. When I first started working as an engineer, decades ago, I was surprised by the gap between reality and the corporation's business plans. I have seen this refusal to deal with reality at many companies.

I remember trying to talk to a corporate vice president about problems with one of his projects, but he refused to listen. A couple of years later that project was shut down, the $25 million expense was written off, and many of the engineers and programmers were laid-off. This failure could have been avoided if problems were faced and solved instead of being ignored. What a waste of time and money that was, but this kind of waste is common in American business.

When leaders refuse to listen to the experts working for them, their projects will either be deficient or will utterly fail. Many of our executives and political leaders believe they can command unrealistic results and force success by sheer will power. NASA lost two satellites to Mars, the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter, because Vice President Al Gore decided to just order NASA to cut their budget and shorten their schedule. These failures were caused by the Faster-Better-Cheaper program pushed down NASA's throat by Al Gore. The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster was also caused by willful management.

The U.S.S. Scorpion submarine was lost at sea with 99 crew dead because management decided to use a drastically shortened overhaul schedule, as described in the book, "Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion" by Stephen Johnson. I could go on and on, describing wasted money, wasted opportunities, and wasted lives, but the point is made and a question must be asked.

How can smart people be so stupid?

Hubris, I think, lures our leaders to believe they have god-like powers over the universe.

Hubris wrecked the American economy in the Fall of 2008. The destructive power of hubris is plainly evident, and a willful disregard for reality is symptom of hubris.

The ancient Greeks learned about hubris through plays and historical accounts. The example of Xerxes whipping the sea was an example of hubris. We can teach our children about hubris the same way the ancient Greeks did: though drama, literature, and historical accounts.

It is imperative we include moral instruction in the education of our youth, educating them to be aware of hubris, to be aware of its destructive power, teaching them to recognize hubris in others and in themselves.

Robert Canright

The NYT article referenced was "The Fight Over NASA's Future" by John Schwartz, Tuesday December 30, 2008. It is a good article about NASA's future missions and replacements to the Space Shuttle.

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