The Washington Post has done a service to its readers and indirectly all businesses in its years-long effort to expose the waste of lives, resources and time the US government alone has spent in Afghanistan over the last 18 years. There ought to be hand-wringing in the halls of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom and think tanks paying former national security staffers. There ought to be serious questions in foreign capitols about following the US in future conflicts. There ought to be outcries in congressional districts across the country where bridges and roads are in disrepair when good money was thrown after bad building empty schools next to existing empty schools so that we could say we built school in a faraway country.
Yes, I said this reporting is a gift to business leaders. They can and should read every article in this long series about the mistakes that were made. The mistakes that were known and perpetuated. The lies that were continued across three different presidential administrations. By the thousands of people in authority who perpetuated the false narrative. Who felt trapped by wildly impossible goals and who felt they couldn’t report the truth that was on the ground in front of them.
These same issues face businesses all over the world in every segment of industry and the global economy.
Truth isn’t good or bad; it just is. But truth has implications, when people tell it. As a business leader, you have to be grounded in the world as it is rather than to how you want it to be. You have to understand human nature enough to know that people want to make their boss happy and will give you information they think makes you happy, whether or not that information takes you down the road to your business success.
Just about every one of the military leaders of any consequence in Afghanistan over the last 15 years and many, if not, most, of the civilians as well had read H.R. McMaster’s book, Dereliction of Duty. This seminal critique of the Pentagon leadership during the Vietnam War lays out the manner in which the military and civilian leaders misled Congress and the American people about the details of the Vietnam War. These very leaders who read this book as assigned reading in Staff College and War College or MBA programs went on to make the same errors as their predecessors in moral judgment leading to the loss of life and national treasure.
So when you’re determining whether to start a business endeavor, be honest with yourself about what it is that you want to do and why. Then when you build your organization to achieve that goal, make it a priority that your people report to you truth about the very specific criteria that informs you whether or not you are successful. So there has to be truth, and that truth has to be relevant to achieving your objectives.
If you’re business is making and selling maple syrup, and your staff tells you they’ve acquired 500 acres of land, you ought to ask how that is relevant to your business goals. If they tell you that it is in keeping with your stated strategy of growing your production through forest acquisition, you should fire them if that land is on the North Dakota plain or Florida swamp.
But for 18 years the American people were told how many tons of building materials were moved, or how much reconstruction money was spent, or how many schools were built in a country that had virtually none to begin with. All this in the pursuit of goals that were not attainable and without any meaningful link between the money and time spent on these pursuits and the goals themselves.
And to date nobody has been called out of retirement to account for their decisions. Nobody had called for congressional investigations. And perhaps worst of all, this reporting doesn’t seem to have caused anyone in authority in any capitol from Washington to Berlin to to pause all operations to ask whether we should continue as if nothing has been brought to light.
Yes, this is a deliberate link for considerations between government failure and business risk. Governments no longer fall when revelations like these are brought to light, but businesses certainly do. When governments waste lives, time and money on failed projects, people will yawn and check their watches to see how long it is before dinner. When business leaders ask the wrong questions, or are more interested in the number of sales calls made than whether any of those calls result in sales, or whether the assumptions they based their business on four years ago are still valid, they put their mortgages, their lifestyles and those of all their employees at risk.
Be careful what you measure. People will find ways to make those measurements look good whether or not they have anything to do with your objectives.
Always thoroughly list out all your assumptions and aggressively challenge and validate them. Then do so at least every year.
Most importantly, state very clearly and succinctly what it is you want to achieve so that you can easily know when you have or if you haven’t.
If you need any help with these steps, contact me. I’d be glad to help.