Much has been made of the recent Supreme Court ruling that allowed prisoners at Guantanamo to challenge their detention in US Federal Courts. Some people feel that slowly and gradually, the stories of torture by the United States Government will come out providing glimpses of a program that many feel is one of the most shameful chapters of United States.
Others may argue that shameful as they were, the torture worked, and point to the lack of any major terrorist attack on the US since 9/11. The New York Times reports today that contrary to popular belief, perhaps some of the most useful information came through a much softer approach. And I also recall an article from over six months ago in the Washington Post, where World War II veterans reminisced about how they had interrogated Nazi generals, matching their wits against those of their mortal enemies. They found pride in the work they did, in how they obtained information without resorting to the same tactics that the enemies had used.
The theme is always the same. More smarts, careful planning, and creativity were always superior tools, whether in war or business. Modern day businessmen unabashedly read Sun-Tzu’s Art of War to learn how lessons from waging war can be used in today’s business world.
I watch Enron, and the resultant Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the sub-prime fiasco and Bear Sterns, and all the experts claiming how different the 21st century is from the past. The changes in technology, the rapid dissemination of information, the proliferation of Internet businesses, the new roles created by the social networking sites, the arrival of India and China into the world scene—these are all such big game changers that we must do things differently.
The only thing I find, however, is that businesses are becoming bigger, and they rely more and more on managing the numbers, and no longer on managing the business. Or simply put, it has become easier to deal with numbers than dealing with people.
By playing the numbers game, it is easy to hire people and to fire them, to outsource so-called “non-core” services, to cut the bottom 10%, and to hit or miss a target. The entire exercise of management is now built on excuses or stories around numbers, and then massaging the numbers. Auditors have become less gatekeepers, and more cheerleaders, then turned antagonists, and finally into self-serving accountants, more interested in survival than being the public’s watchdog. And managers no longer pride themselves in having more creativity, wit, leadership, and the ability to positively change the lives of those around them.
On Fox’s show 24, we are all led to believe that the world will explode into a nuclear fireball if Jack Bauer doesn’t grind the truth out of the terrorist in the next 30 seconds. We watch in horror, and satisfaction, as he grinds his fist into the wounds of an enemy agent. The agent finally breaks and spits out the secret location of the detonators, and the world is safer until the next hour (for which you have to wait 7 days).
In the corporate world, executives grind their troops into the ground demanding why profitability is 9.8% instead of the 10.1% that they had promised their shareholders. Heads will fly, explanations will be demanded, powerpoint slides will be prepared, and then the world will move on, the executives’ jobs secure. That is so much easier than understanding the jobs of the clerks who staff the airline counters, the part-timers broiling burgers, the truckers delivering the goods, the trainers teaching leadership skills, the journalists investigating corporate or political corruption, the editors creating magic out of their word processors, and the doctors treating their patients.
Is it unfair to compare the torturers within CIA and the executives of our business world? I guess you might have a point. At least the CIA agents truly believe they are trying to save their country.