I read a book that so impressed me that next semester it will be required reading for my undergraduate students. Gordon M. Goldstein’s book Lessons in Disaster is a gem reminiscent only of Graham Allison’s and Philip Zelikow’s book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision. Allison and Zelikow show us how groupthink can overwhelm us when checkmated. Goldstein scares the heck out of us by showing us how confidence, intelligence, perseverance, and vision can take us straight over the cliff. Ultimately, in many of our political organizations, beneath the veneer of logic and planning, lies a world of second-guessing and crippling uncertainty.
Chief among the cast of personages in Goldstein’s work is McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy administration’s National Security Adviser. As the author notes, Bundy’s focus was political, not strategic or tactical. Goldstein reports that most of Bundy’s ruminations during his service in Washington was concerned with the political aspects of national security. His recommendations rarely dealt with the military mechanics of achieving political goals. Bundy was quick to recommend escalations of troop levels or bombing campaigns in Vietnam, but he didn’t bother with the details on how to implement those recommendations so to maximize success in the overall objectives of American foreign policy. Goldstein shows us in his portrayal of Bundy that ego, blind vision, and arrogance are the antithesis of systematic execution.
In a world of Deepwater Horizon, with no backup plan, no exit strategy, where everyone seems to living in a Rube Goldberg Machine, and where policy is seemingly held together by tape, Goldstein’s book is essential.
For us academics who believe that we have control of some objective knowledge and are capable of pure rational analysis Goldstein reminds us that this same academic arrogance manufactured derivatives and complex securities that depleted our collective 401ks and suckered us into détente and the domino theory in the fight against communism. Execution was cast aside because of a certain pompous insularity.
With the current quagmire in Afghanistan, Gordon Goldstein is must reading for Barack Obama’s national security team. Lessons in Disaster serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of intellectual arrogance overpowering good judgment at the highest levels of political decision making. Of all the books I have read, this is the must leadership book to be read by all.