John F. Kennedy's Crisis Management

Economist and Writer
Kennedy realized that people were agreeing with him and with each other because they didn’t want to feel out of place.
  • Transcript


Tim Harford:  Donald Rumsfeld is a particularly extreme example, so in a way the lesson that you would draw as a leader trying to learn from his mistakes is pretty simple.  Just don’t do what Donald Rumsfeld did. 

I would look instead at a leader who first failed and the succeeded in receiving feedback and that’s John F. Kennedy because what was fascinating about Kennedy is the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  He seemed to be doing everything right.  He had a circle of advisors and they were discussing this ambitious invasion that was going to be secret and was going to topple Fidel Castro and he asked everybody their opinion and everybody seemed to think it was a great idea.

Later on Kennedy learned his lesson.  He realized that people were agreeing with him and with each other because they didn’t want to feel out of place.  They didn’t want to be the only person who was disagreeing.  Kennedy realized he had to break up his advisors.  He had to get them into small groups disagreeing with each other.  He had to get them alone and press them and almost demand disagreement.  He had to bring in outside advisors who he knew would disagree with the inner circle.  The last point is really important.  There is a very famous study by Solomon Asch and he finds that you can get people to say things that they basically know are wrong, to answer questions that they’re pretty sure the answer is wrong because everybody else in the room is coming up with exactly the same wrong answer.  What is fascinating about Solomon Asch’s research is if you introduce a dissenter even if the dissenter is also wrong as long as the dissenter is wrong in a different way then suddenly that social pressure is released.  So my advice is if you are having a discussion about a particularly strategy or a way forward or any course of action a different opinion, even if the different opinion is completely wrong really liberates the discussion.  People feel they’re not the only one to be expressing disagreement.  They don’t have to agree with the crazy devil’s advocate, but they can disagree with everybody else, so seek dissent.  Even if the dissent in itself doesn’t seem useful actually it’s really liberating the discussion.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd