Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Missing the Trees for the Forest

From CHENer Kate Hoagland...

Whether it’s the levies breaking, a finger in the chili or an unruly executive running off at the mouth, communications crises are a way of life in today’s world.

In the recent article “In Case of Emergency,” James Surowiecki (a.k.a. Mr. Wisdom of Crowds) argues business pitfalls are inevitable in part because we are plagued with an unrealistic level of optimism towards those potential problems, with top executives as the biggest offenders. Low probability events, while they may carry a huge price tag, are just that -- unlikely to happen and not worth planning or attempting to prevent. Yet, according to a study by the Institute of Crisis Management, nearly 75 percent of major business emergencies could have been avoided because the warning signs were there. Exuding confidence despite the bleakest circumstances may allow our leaders to quickly climb the corporate ladder but it can also cause them to fall just as fast. Are we guilty of breeding our top executives to only see the forest and not the trees until it’s too late?

Recently Bill Gates was quoted mocking MIT’s affordable computer project to benefit third world countries. He criticized the small screens and cranks stating, "If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user, geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type.” He went on to promote Microsoft’s more expensive computer.

Recognized for his philanthropy and countless hours dedicated to third world poverty issues, Bill Gates’ comments hardly reinforce his TIME “Person of Year” title. Call me crazy, but communities without running water probably lack the luxury of electricity and would benefit from cranking mechanisms. Moreover, I’m willing to bet that broadband connections in the bush are rare to non-existent.

Yet, however insensitive his comments may be, businesses depend on the Bill Gates-es of the world to speak candid, creative bold visions, unhindered by whom or what such visions might offend. Microsoft’s success is in direct relation to Bill Gates’ leadership and vision. Too often, though, executives cross a fine line; above the law at the worst extreme or out-of-touch with reality at best.

Or maybe we have unrealistic expectations of the capabilities of our leaders? Nobody’s perfect.

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