New Cabinet Will Make Mistakes

Larry Price
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Wednesday - January 19, 2011
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As most politicians, individuals and leaders of organizations rely extensively on experience, it sometimes leads to misguided conclusions. From an academic point of view, experience may possibly be the best teacher, but it is not a particularly good teacher. Why? When you learn from “trial and error,” you get the test first and the lesson later.

This fact causes leaders, especially political leaders, to lament, “How could we have been so stupid?”

It’s not an explanation, but it happens when experience is lacking in the decision-making process. Remember the Bay of Pigs decision-makers? There also are those who led the United States into other major fiascos, such as the failure to be prepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Korean War stalemate and the escalation of the Vietnam War. I was present for three of the aforementioned historical events and can guarantee you no one appeared to know what was going on.


Stupidity certainly is not an explanation. Those who participated in the Bay of Pigs decision were some of the greatest intellectual talents in the history of American government: Rusk, McNamara, Dillon, Kennedy, Bundy, Schlesinger, Dulles and more.

I was fortunate to be employed at UH when Harlan Cleveland became president. He was a very smart man who also was involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco as one of the deputy secretaries in the Kennedy administration. The experience partially inspired him to write a great book on leadership, The Future Executive.

I used to drive Cleveland down to the Legislature when he had to testify, and was amazed at how he reacted to “stupid” questions from some of the lawmakers. I used to joke with him about why they would invite him to testify, but then disregard what he had to say. Of course, he was not the only important person to whom that has happened at our Legislature.

The reason I’m discussing this process now is because it’s happening all over again with the newly appointed Abercrombie cabinet. Each new cabinet member has a combination of temporary emotional states of elation, fear or even some anger that can reduce mental efficiency. Some of those blind spots have already been exposed - arising from an individual’s social prejudices or idiosyncratic biases.


When new cabinet members make stupid decisions, the voters should not be distressed, because they are victims of something called “group dynamics.” It is, in fact, common for new groups to become victims of what is known has “group-think.” It is a typical phenomenon of social conformity. In these situations, group norms bolster morale at the expense of critical thinking.

My point is to just enjoy the show. It’s going to be something.

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