Leading During a Crisis

Background to the crisis

In April 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy made the decision that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. On April 17, 1961, a group of CIA-backed Cubans landed on the southwestern coast of Cuba. The aim was to overthrow Fidel Castro and his government. The backdrop was an increasingly dangerous cold war, with the Soviet Union and the U.S. armed with nuclear weapons.  

Robert Kennedy recounts that “we had virtual unanimity at the time of the Bay of Pigs.”  The Yale psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase “groupthink” to reflect this decision-making process. Arthur Schlesinger, historian and speechwriter for President Kennedy, later wrote, “Our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it.” 

The result was not just a botched landing with farcical aspects (for example, air cover from six unmarked U.S. jets did not make the rendezvous because the CIA and Pentagon did not take into account the time difference between Nicaragua and Cuba),  but the attempted invasion led to a series of events that brought the world close to nuclear annihilation. 

Evaluating and learning

President Kennedy accepted he had made significant decision-making mistakes during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Importantly Kennedy realized he needed to “retool his decision-making process.” Thus on October 15, 1962, President Kennedy learned that the Soviets were placing nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. These missiles would reach 80 million Americans within a few minutes, and for Kennedy, this was completely unacceptable.

The President’s military advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended an immediate and massive military strike against the missiles. However, unlike the period just preceding and during the Bay of Pigs action, Kennedy had in place a new process. Some of the critical aspects of this process are summarized below. 

  1. Slowing down – making space for good team decision making
  2. A wide circle of consultations
  3. Generating many options and thinking them through
  4. Explaining and Building Buy-in from Allies
  5. Executing the plan by always keeping in mind “the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes.”   

Kennedy’s revamped strategy succeeded. Khrushchev backed down, and the missiles were removed from Cuba. Kennedy pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and, a few months later, gave the Soviets an additional benefit by removing American missiles from Turkey.  

Leadership 

Kennedy became President with almost no executive leadership experience. He made a major blunder in the Bay of Pigs and seemed to be diplomatically dominated by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met soon after that crisis had ended. Kennedy called that meeting with Khrushchev “the roughest thing in my life.”  

Despite these early mistakes, Kennedy picked himself up and learned from his blunders. Kennedy remembered the following extract from a book he had read by B. H. Liddell Hart, a British soldier and military historian on nuclear strategy:

“Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-blinding.” 

How close the world was to nuclear annihilation only became known in 1992. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Americans and the Russians met for a series of conferences on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the crisis, “almost fell out of his chair”  when he found out that Soviet soldiers were equipped with tactical nuclear missiles and that they were authorized to use if the communications link with Moscow was severed.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala