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A Perfect Storm? No, a Failure of Leadership

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008; Page D01

A bit of unsolicited advice to business executives trying to explain why their company or their industry is suddenly in the soup:

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Please spare us the "perfect storm" metaphor.

It's hackneyed, for starters. It doesn't square with the facts. And for people who fancy themselves leaders, it's downright unbecoming.

The reason the perfect storm is such an appealing metaphor for these shipwrecked captains of industry is that it appears to let them off the hook. After all, who can blame you if the ship goes down in one of those freak, once-in-a-century storms that result when three weather systems collide? It's an act of nature that nobody could have predicted -- or so the story goes.

The latest victim to offer the "perfect storm" defense is Sam Zell, the real estate tycoon who was smart enough to sell out at the top of the commercial real estate cycle, only to dive into the newspaper and broadcast business of the Tribune Co. just as circulation and advertising revenue were about to collapse.

Three weeks ago, it was the auto executives on their first visit to Washington who tried to convince us that the only reason they were running out of cash was a sharp drop in vehicle sales brought on by sky-high gas prices, a credit crunch and rising unemployment.

And in several recent interviews, Robert Rubin, the Treasury secretary turned boardroom consigliere, conjured up the perfect storm to explain how Citigroup and the rest of Wall Street nearly brought the global financial system to a grinding halt, vaporizing trillions of dollars in wealth and putting large swaths of the economy on government life support.

The first thing to understand about the perfect-storm defense is that these guys actually buy into this nonsense. The rest of us want desperately to believe that what brought us this economic crisis was some combination of greed, fraud and negligence -- and, no doubt, there was quite a bit of that. What the populist critique ignores, however, is that at the heart of any economic or financial mania is an epidemic of self-delusion that infects not only large numbers of unsophisticated investors but also many of the smartest, most experienced and sophisticated executives and bankers.

It's not that they don't see the excesses and dangers in front of them -- how could they not? But somehow they convince themselves that the world has changed, that the old rules no longer apply or that, because of competitive pressure, they had no choice but to run with the herd.

In recent months, I've had a chance to talk with half a dozen top business leaders whose companies have fallen into the soup and read published interviews with many more. And almost to a person, they say that they've been replaying the tape over and over in their minds and, even now, they still can't figure out what they might have done differently, given what they knew at the time and the various pressures they were under. Or put another way, they continue to think of themselves as victims of a perfect storm.

The second thing to understand is that, fundamentally, they're wrong.

It is useful to remember that in Sebastian Junger's gripping account of a shipwreck that popularized the notion of the perfect storm, Billy Tyne, the skipper of the Andrea Gail, received urgent and repeated warnings that he was heading into what could be a monster storm off the Grand Banks -- warnings that Tyne and his crew chose to ignore. After all, the weather immediately around them had been relatively calm, and the swordfish had been tantalizingly plentiful. And there were always worrywarts warning not to do this and not to do that. If Tyne had listened to them, the Andrea Gail would never have left port, let alone become one of the most successful sword boats in Gloucester, Mass.


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