Notes from the coaching room
How the Bay of Pigs changed decision-making for us all
Our work with leaders regularly brings us to consider their role as individuals inside the team they lead. A leadership position brings with it power and prestige which isn’t always compatible with good group dynamics. We regularly point to an experience from history on what can go wrong, and right, about how a leader shows up with their team.
On the 17th April 1961, US President John F Kennedy authorised the invasion by CIA funded and trained exiles of Castro’s Cuba. The ill-conceived and badly botched attempt to oust the leader of an irritating neighbour was a disaster at every level but the ‘The Bay of Pigs’, as the incident came to be known, also led to some practices of modern leadership which deserve more celebration.
Yale psychologist Irving Janis studied the White House records of the meetings and interviewed many of Kennedy’s inner circle who had been involved, and described the tendency of intelligent and forthright individuals whose behaviour in those groups became dominated by trying to minimize conflict and reach consensus. Testing, analysing, and evaluating their ideas was abandoned by Kennedy and his cabinet and they collectively presided over a series of decisions that they would never have tolerated as individuals. Irving’s work with this group and others suggested that pressures for conformity restrict the thinking of groups, bias their analysis, promote simplistic and stereotyped thinking and stifle individual creative and independent thought.
Irving called this tendency ‘groupthink’ and avoiding it is one of the critical foundations of modern leadership practice.
Kennedy undertook a post-event review, another practice that was novel at the time, and implemented immediate change to the way the group operated:
- Each participant was explicitly briefed and regularly reminded to be a ‘sceptical generalist’ in debating the problem as a whole and not to rely exclusively on their departmental responsibilities.
- Meetings would take place informally, without agenda or protocol on occasions and sometimes away from the White House to avoid status and hierarchy dominating decisions.
- The team should be broken into sub-groups to work on alternative scenarios and re-convene.
- The team should sometimes meet without Kennedy being present to avoid others simply following his views.
The aim was to encourage alternative viewpoints, avoid over-reliance on subject expertise, stimulate debate and avoid the cohesiveness of the group becoming an inhibition to their collective performance.
Sooner than anyone would have liked, the new ways of working were put to the sternest of tests when the White House became aware of a Soviet plan to place atomic missiles on Cuba within range of 80 million US citizens. As the world held its breath and nuclear disaster loomed, Kennedy and his team were able to stimulate debate, constructively disagree, stress-test assumptions and ultimately produce creative solutions to avoid the conflict that had seemed inevitable when the soviet fleet was first spotted sailing across the Atlantic to Cuba.
It’s perhaps a shame that Kennedy’s name is not more closely associated with developing a style of collective decision-making that has become the one of the foundations of leadership behaviour and a key plank in good corporate governance through the appointment of independent directors. His openness to review after the Bay of Pigs debacle, his acknowledgement that his position was a positive inhibitor to debate and his willingness to park his prestige and position are perhaps equally important lessons in the ability to observe the group of which you are a part, reflect on experience, learn, adapt and put ego to one side in the pursuit of better decisions.
Things for modern leaders to consider:
- What are your team meetings for? Are they exchanges of information or genuine engagements in collective decision-making? What can you change to make meetings more dynamic and powerful?How confident are you that everyone is contributing their best, brightest and most creative thinking? How do your team show up with one another and with you? Is there a difference between what people say in private and in public forums?
- How do you manage your own behaviour in team meetings? Does everyone look to you for the ultimate decision? What can you do to make it clear that groupthink isn’t welcome?
Xytal is the leading British consultancy developing leadership in the health sector. ‘Notes from the coaching room’ is drawn from our real experience of the issues faced by many leaders in improving their leadership practice. Get in contact with us to learn more. If you found this article beneficial, you might also consider checking out our Leadership Development programme.