When The Chilcot Report into the Iraq Inavsion was published in November 2016 The Guardian newspaper reported that:
“…Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, Chilcot said “sofa government”, in which ministers were not consulted on crucial decisions, reached a high point …on several occasions between 2002 and 2007 “things were decided without reference to cabinet”.
The rights and wrongs of the Iraq invasion or the strengths and weaknesses of Mr Blair are not my focus here. How decisions are made by what I call COVID19 CEOs – those CEOs unlucky enough to be in charge during and after the COVID-19 crisis – is.
Andrew Hill at the time of the report observed in the Financial Times:
“…What does this report tell us? The same old corporate and political story of how an excess of certitude at the top can lead to catastrophe…If chief executives know little else, they know they have to take decisions… The report advocates wider and deeper discussion in cabinet and committees, separation of risk assessments from policy decisions, and independent audit of strategy as it is implemented — all good advice for CEOs considering important strategic moves… It casts doubt, for example, on Mr Blair’s predilection for sofa-style government…where many leaders draw strength and advice from an inner circle…The sofa where a few intimates discussed strategy was exceedingly comfy…Mr Blair seems to have had a strong need for “cognitive closure” — an instinct to “make a judgment and then stick with it” — described in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better. Many successful decision makers eventually over-reach.”
So, The Chilcot Inquiry criticism of “sofa” style decision-making is a grim reminder of the importance of good corporate governance that encourages challenge by dissenters. But how many leaders are emotionally equipped to encourage this?
I recall, as a young divisional managing director, and a member of a group Executive Committee being told by an old hand who whispered to me at my first meeting “you can always tell who the new people are at ExCom meetings”. “How’s that”, I asked. “They’re smiling” he said. “They sure as hell stop smiling after their first public slap” as I learned for myself, painfully, in due course.
So, what’s to be done by you, you COVID19 CEOS?
Leadership101 is my answer:
How about old fashioned meetings with an agenda, motions, pros and cons discussions, permission to have “Devil’s Advocates” in the room, votes or, at least, shows of hands and above all, Minutes written after, and not drafted before, the meeting?
The problem is that the very personality traits that propel some leaders to the top, including you, are the ones which will prevent them from changing behaviour to accommodate dissent. But there is a chink of light here: apart form utter psychopaths – and I acknowledge that a few of these stalk the corridors of corporate power – most dysfunctional leaders are merely playing out, as the experts tell us, behaviour patterns established in their formative years.
So, if they – you – can be brought to see that even small changes in behaviour – e.g. listening to a contrary view just 10 times more out of every hundred interactions – that’s only 10% behavioural change, this can lead to improved outcomes for them – for you – as an incentive to change.
But we must face these issues now in the thick of COVID-19 since, as day follows night, there will be a COVID Chilcot-type Inquiry. Already we are getting some insights into the horrors that the report may contain.
Imagine there’s going be a Chilcot-type inquiry into your behaviour as CEO during COVID-19. How will you emerge from that?
You can decide today. Either behave as you usually do and you will almost certainly err, or stretch your behaviour during these stressful times and do what athletes do – strive for peak performance.
But you don’t have to suffer half as much as athletes do, just listen to others before you make decisions. How much can that hurt?
Andrew Hill puts it well in his FT piece:
“The test of their greatness is how willing they are to consider the alternatives to what may appear a clear course of action before making a bold executive order. Duhigg tells the cautionary tale of the Israeli general Eli Zeira, who failed to spot the imminent Yom Kippur war of 1973. Years later, the ex-officer admitted that, before making his fateful decisions, he should have referred to a talismanic note he carried. On it were written three words: “And if not?””