Margaret Heffernan wrote a book last year entitled Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, a look at how leaders have intentional blind spots. She queries why many people prefer ignorance over being well informed. In examining the Catholic Church, political despots, unethical corporate leaders, financial mismanagement, and the foibles of top military brass, Heffernan makes the tie between a leader’s choices and the impact on the organizations served. using psychology, researched accounts, and some intuition, she has been compared to Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Taleb and has received kudos from Dan Pink.
In an article published in Inc, she analyzes the General Petraeus fiasco and makes comparisons between others she covered for her book and the characters in the saga splashed across many websites, newspapers, and journals presently. Heffernan tries to get inside his head as to what he may be thinking about his new dilemma: soon to be unemployed and suddenly having destroyed a very accomplished career that others coveted until the story broke.
Yet, was it so sudden? Hasn’t this revelation been building since the point of the first indiscretion? Digging more deeply, what was the thought process that led up to the first bad decision? Heffernan says she heard a CNN interview in which a Petraeus friend said that the general “sees this as a failure, and this is a man who has never failed at anything.” She asks the counterintuitive question–did he go wrong by never going wrong? An excerpt from her article:
If you have never failed at anything, then you haven’t been trying hard enough, aren’t very imaginative, or have had such extraordinarily good luck that you have come to believe you are invincible. And that, of course, is the problem.
“Success confers its own blindness,” Emily Brown told me. She’s a marriage counselor who has worked extensively with couples who have had the experience of infidelity.
“Successful people believe they can get away with it,” she says. “I talked once to a group of men who’d all become millionaires before the age of 40, and they’d had affairs. They don’t even see the danger! It isn’t a love of risk. They think: The wives will never know, so where’s the harm? Everything else in their lives has worked out, so they think they have some kind of magic, that their success has meant that they can have everything they want and they’re invulnerable. And they were completely blind to the harm they had done.”
Most of us make mistakes, and we should take some comfort in the fact that these usually remind us that we are fallible. If we are very lucky, we make mistakes from which we can learn and recover. Most of us have the oddly good luck not to imagine that we are infallible.
I’m a big believer in mistakes. Not just because I make lots of them–like everyone, I try very hard not to–but because every mistake contains learning. The best mistakes are the ones from which you learn the most and that you never forget. I would bet Petraeus thought that never failing was a sign of his genius. The truth is probably that he made mistakes, but he didn’t take time to learn from them. Or, hauntingly, he got away with mistakes by benefiting from everyone else’s care and attention, like a man who drinks too much but drives home safely.
No one is infallible. And those who think they are are probably going to be the most disappointed.
As you read about the former general’s mistakes, hopefully you can look at your own and have some perspective. Have you grown from them? Do others cover over your missteps — or do you have a circle close to you who will level with you at the expense of saying something that you may not want to hear in the short run?