Lesson from JFK: How to resolve conflicting views

Flickr/US Embassy New Delhi

"You both went to the same country?"

So President John F. Kennedy asked the two men who came to brief him in September 1962 about the situation in Vietnam. One of them, General Victor Krulak, said the government of South Vietnam had the war under control and that its military would win it (At the time, U.S. combat forces had yet to be deployed to the country.) The other, State Department advisor Joseph Mendenhall disagreed, saying that the situation was uncertain, noting that Vietnamese students were joining the side of the Viet Cong.

This incident, drawn from the last excerpt of the Kennedy tapes released this month, exemplifies a situation that every senior leader faces sooner or later -- receiving conflicting advice from top advisors. In the example above, each man presents the issue as he sees it and leaves it for the president to decide.

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But who is right? With the hindsight of history, it would seem that the State Department had the conflict correctly diagnosed from the start. Sadly, of course, Kennedy was robbed of the opportunity to weigh in with his decision. He was killed just months after this recording was made.

History offers clarity, but leaders do not have that benefit; they make decisions in real time. Put another way, they make history, not read it. Leaders want to leave a mark on the record, of course. But when presented with two equally good -- or, in the case of Vietnam, equally bad -- choices what should a leader do?

First, fall back on what you know. Leaders are often elevated to the position because they have experience dealing with such challenges. For example, a CEO has typically risen through the ranks, while the president obviously has served in higher office previously. The sum of one's experience goes into the decision-evaluation process.

Good leaders, like Kennedy, brought their own biases to the issue. In Kennedy's case, having been a junior officer in the Pacific during World War II, he had a natural aversion to the brass. He simply did not trust them.

Likewise, many CEOs I know weigh information on the basis of how it resonates with their experience. Something an underling reports often seems too good to be true. And knowing that subordinates like to color things favorably, corporate leaders often develop a healthy dose of skepticism as they rise through the chain of command.

This is useful background, but it isn't enough to make a judgment. Savvy leaders probe for details by asking informed questions. They judge the answers by what they know to be true from their own experience or the experience of others they trust. Often it comes down to a simple question: Do I trust the messenger?

This is not simply a matter of who's telling the truth, because sadly we know that truth can be relative, or at least circumstantial. That is, the messenger is expressing what he knows (or thinks he knows) based on information gathered from others. But his judgment may be colored by his lack of experience or lack of context.

Consider the parable of the blind men examining the elephant. Because each man only examines one part of the animal, their descriptions vary -- none can agree on what the great beast really is. Each is telling the truth as he knows it, but none have apprehended all the parts in such a way to make an accurate assessment.

That is where leadership comes to the fore. The wise leader calls for more information or at least insists, as many senior leaders do, on a first-hand inspection to draw their own judgment.

Perspective is essential to effective leadership. And leaders who can maintain it properly are those who can see the present clearly, with the full context of the past as background for making a decision that will alter the future.

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