The best bad idea
In a leadership role, it would be wonderful to always be able to identify and select the very best of the best ideas and options. But senior leaders in organizations, companies, and countries are unfortunately often faced with unattractive options and forced to make less-than-ideal decisions.
Reflecting on the 1976 Entebbe raid, the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the period of time American President George W. Bush was in office (2001 – 2009) has served as a reminder that we are not living in an ideal world. This recent exercise also makes me realize, yet again, that the decisions each person is required to make will not always likely be ideal either.
Of course this observation is not intended as justification for routinely lowering moral standards or self-consciously making blatantly poor decisions. However, it is often futile to search endlessly for that elusive “perfect” option guaranteed to please absolutely everyone.
July 4th, 2016 marked the 40-year anniversary of the daring raid on the Entebbe Airport in Uganda hastily organized to free approximately 100 hostages. On June 27th, 1976 Air France Flight 139 was hijacked in Athens en route from Tel Aviv to Paris with 248 passengers on board. This flight was then diverted to Uganda.
The terrorists were interested in a trade; they wanted to swap their newly acquired hostages for fellow terrorists held mostly in Israeli prisons. As a result, most of the non-Israelis were allowed to go free while the remaining Jewish captives were threatened with death if Israel did not quickly comply with the hijackers’ demands.
What would you do if you were the one responsible for making a timely decision and dealing with this dangerous situation?
From what I can tell, the leaders in Israel were not immediately sure what to do. But they did quickly cobble together a somewhat desperate military option – just in case it might work. Those familiar with the details of this story will know that Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, ended up leading Operation Thunderbolt, and was the only Israeli commando killed during this largely successful raid. Three of the hostages also died.
Reliable core convictions, an accurate moral compass, and up-to-date information are all required to begin to assess any leaders’ legacy
On November 4th, 1979 several hundred students invaded the embassy and held 52 of the American staff members and diplomats hostage until January 20, 1981. Being a Canadian, I find it encouraging that six Americans were able to avoid being captured and eventually found refuge in the homes of staff members associated with the Canadian embassy. Argo, an award-winning film directed by Ben Affleck and released in 2012, tells the story of the creative way the CIA and the Canadian government went about getting these people safely out of the country: they posed as members of a Canadian film crew in order to get through Iranian customs.
In one scene in the movie, the American authorities responsible for making the final decision were obviously unhappy with the proposed rescue method and cover story. “Don’t you have any other bad ideas?” one person exclaims. “No,” responds the CIA operative, Tony Mendez, “this is the best bad idea we have got.” President Carter’s military rescue option would sadly fail. But somehow this oddball method managed to succeed.
Having recently read Decision Points, by former President George W. Bush, I am struck by the realization that conflict and disagreement surrounding major decisions will likely always exist. At one point in his autobiography, Bush describes decisions he faced on a daily basis as being complex with strong argument on either side. In other words, from his perspective, the best course of action was not always immediately obvious. And we need to remember that people in leadership roles usually have access to additional and confidential information.
Making decisions is often very complex at the best of times, even for those of us who do not manage companies or lead large and powerful nations. More education and information is not always the answer. Many tend to forget that Bush had degrees from Yale and Harvard.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, American presidents have been associated with the Republicans for 60 years and, including up to the end of Barack Obama’s second term, connected to the Democrats for 56 years. For whatever reason, the leadership flips back and forth between the two parties on a fairly regular basis. At 20 years, the Franklin D. Roosevelt/Harry Truman combination represents the longest Democrat run by far. Meanwhile the Republicans were able to maintain a 12-year reign in the Oval Office a couple of times with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush producing the most recent record.
Reliable core convictions, an accurate moral compass, and up-to-date information are all required to begin to assess any leaders’ legacy. Compared to other world leaders, past and present, I suspect that most Western dignitaries and American presidents would receive an above-average rating.
But I am really hoping that the next president will be able to find some better bad ideas to work with. For that matter, I am hoping to discover a few better bad ideas myself.
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