In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell tells fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly he cannot participate in the mission to the moon because he is ill. Mattingly protests: it’s just a cold, it’s no big deal, it won’t have any impact. Lovell’s not having it. Mattingly makes one final attempt. “Let me talk to Slayton,” he says, referring to Deke Slayton, Lovell’s boss.
“It’s my decision,” says Lovell, played by Tom Hanks. That’s that. Only we know Lovell is lying because we just saw him arguing the same points with Slayton. It’s not his decision, though he presents it that way to Mattingly.
I always thought that scene encapsulates how a person has to handle himself when he’s part of a large organization. The boss makes a decision. You disagree with it. You make your case. But you’re overruled. If it’s a moral issue on which you can’t compromise, then you probably have to resign. Otherwise, you accept it as your own decision and present it that way to the people who see you as the boss.
Turned out to be harder than I thought. When I started in the technology industry, I was lucky enough to have bosses who accepted dissent and took the time to explain to me why they were asking me to do things I thought ill-advised. Sometimes I was able to persuade them. More often, I wasn’t. In those cases, I did what they asked me to do.
Years later, I find myself managing a large organization. When I’m told to do something stupid, it’s usually not just me who has to do it. It’s me who has to explain what we’re doing and why to the handful of people who report to me, so that they in turn can work with their own teams to implement it. I’ve been doing this for a while and still have not figured out how to respond to the assertions that what they are being asked to do is a mistake.
The Jim Lovell approach does not seem right. These people know how I think. Claiming ownership of a decision which they know I didn’t make will only jeopardize my credibility.
Blaming it on my own management does not seem right. It is both unprofessional and infantilizing to say, “Yeah, I agree it’s moronic but it’s what the boss wants so we have to do it.”
The best response, it seems to me, for those fortunate enough to possess this skill, is described by George Orwell as blackwhite. In 1984, Orwell writes,
Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The key word here is blackwhite…Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.
Substitute corporation for Party and I think you’ve got something. This is the trait I see more and more as I have climbed the corporate ladder – and its absence in myself one of the shortcomings which will prevent my further ascent. This is the behavior I see when my boss directs me to do something we had discussed days earlier as being idiotic or when others reject a request from me as impossible, only to willingly do it when requested by a higher-up. I don’t object to the initial rejection, and I am mature enough to accept that the person with the loftier title will get a different result; I just don’t understand how I can be told something is impossible when it clearly isn’t. Is my chain just being jerked? I don’t think these people are such convincing actors. More likely, I fear, is that the possibility of the task has more to do with what party discipline demands than with what is actually doable.
Jim Lovell didn’t really believe or know that Ken Mattingly was too ill for the voyage. He might have been a good astronaut. But he would have made a poor Party member in 1984 and a poor mid-level corporate executive in 2015.