Talking to Margaret Heffernan About Willful Blindness

Willful Blindness.

One of my favorite interviews that I’ve ever done is this one with Margaret Heffernan about her excellent book, Willful Blindness.

This is the best book non-fiction book that I have read in a long time and Margaret is a wonderfully generous and eloquent speaker on the subject of how and why we ignore the obvious at our peril.

Listen to the conversation with Margaret here -> BOTR Talks to Margaret Heffernan.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Undoubtedly there are organizational constructs and cultures that create more favourable conditions for willful blindness than others. Heroic leadership styles, companies highly focused on the power and influence of a single individual, provoke the kind of second-guessing among executives that stops them from thinking or analyzing what they know to be true.

It is always intrinsically difficult for leaders to know what is going on in their organizations, but never more so than when their personalities or egos quash debate or dissent. That so many recent corporate and institutional failures have occurred inside organizations with strong leaders should make us all wonder whether the celebrity of magazine covers and guru status is good for anyone. Whether CEOs are celebrated for being a “Sun King,” “the most aggressive CEO in America,” or a whiz kid, you can be sure that the more elevated their status, the less likely it is that anyone will dare to articulate an uncomfortable truth to them. Power is dangerous, a bubble and a barrier, and wise leaders would do well to see it as a handicap, not a reward.

Margaret Heffernan.

In some of the organizations I’ve worked with, we have conducted blind audits and obedience audits, which measure just how much organizational silence, obedience, and conformity exist within an organization. The results were always startling, because they unearthed the unmentionables: the known unknowns that no one wanted to talk about. That helped us to understand what needed to be changed and, perhaps more importantly, sent a signal that silence wasn’t golden, it was dangerous. When she led Guidant, CEO Ginger Graham instigated a form of radical honesty during her tenure, though hers was more confrontational.

“Each member of the senior management team would take turns sitting on a tall stool in front of the room. One by one, their peers would bring up a shortcoming they’d observed and offer suggestions for improvement. The manager on the hot seat could only listen, not comment.

“As you can imagine, many a manager’s first impulse was to disagree or try to explain away some of these comments. But if several people in the group mentioned the same thing, the manager would begin to understand that his or her behaviour truly needed to be addressed.”

Excerpted from Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, by Margaret Heffernan. Published online with permission from Doubleday Canada.

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

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