“..You just don’t get it Admiral, do you?.” (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Admiral George Madsen)
- Finding new protocols
- Negotiating without dealing directly
- Remembering what is really important
This movie relives the 13 days that transpired in the fall of 1962 when President JFK was dealing with the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. There is a great deal of fascinating political history surrounding this story, but I will over simplify the situation by identifying a few key dynamics of the day:
- The newly elected Kennedy administration (not quite 2 years into his first term), did not have full support of Congress and the leadership in the Pentagon. (Some feared too much appeasement.)
- Earlier in the administration, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion caused some in the military to feel the need to bolster or repair their image.
- The Cold War was in full swing.
This unfolding story is a textbook case study in multi-party negotiations. Kennedy has an inner circle that includes his brother Bobby and long-time friend and advisory, Kenny O’Donnell. Through the political drama that is playing out on international and intra-government levels, they have to calculate what moves to make (and which not to) in order to keep on track and, more importantly, send the correct signals to stakeholders to protect and not sour/strain important relationships.
Spoiler Alert: They avoid starting WWIII (but you knew that).
There are a million different agendas at play in this movie, including those mentioned above that stem from embarrassment and outrage following the very public failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. There is a natural reaction for people want to prove themselves again or create situations to further expose the weaknesses of others. It is safe to say that not everyone wants JFK to succeed in this situation or, to be more nuanced, to be seen to have succeeded.
The one area that absolutely everyone can get behind is “avoid a nuclear war.” This is powerful and comes up again and again, sometimes as a threat (e.g. if you do that, you will force us/them into a war) and sometimes as a shared interest (e.g. none of us wants that to happen, right?).
It is hard to understand “how we are doing” when it comes to global peace, but the metaphoric journey is to advance the political agenda without triggering an international crisis. In the workplace, the downside may be less steep, but this provides a good lesson in dealing with “enemies” who share a common overarching goal of ours.
Set-up – Rules and Constraints:
One of the most interesting exchanges for me was that about the interpretation of the “rules of engagement” when a Soviet warship had breached the “blockade” (which was actually called a “quarantine” because technically a “blockade” is an “act of war”). The historic escalation protocol according to the Navy rules of engagement would have been to hail the ship, then fire blanks across the bow, then fire real artillery to disable the rudder before finally boarding the enemy ship.
JFK’s specific instruction of “no firing” without Presidential consent created some confusion as to whether or not firing a blank was actually “firing.” Conversations over specificity of wording to this level tend to try my patience, but this is a legitimate distinction to draw. The exchange between the Defense Secretary and the highest ranking naval officer is a fascinating look at how overt conflict is part of the fabric in navigating the waters of collaboration. (Pun intended, BTW.)
Set-up – Measures and Metrics:
The “result” that seems to define success in this context is: “have we started a nuclear war yet?” We are often in situations where the only obvious indicators are events or occurrences. This tends to be part of the territory for anyone operating with a “prevention” agenda. Have we been audited? Have we had a bad safety incident? Have key employees quit yet? Have we gone out of business yet?
A level down from that ultimate measure are two overt examples that fit in this area:
- Were we fired on? In an effort to quell an overly reactive orientation from the military, JFK’s top aide persuades a pilot to hide the fact that they were indeed fired on. Hiding this evidence helps stay true to the “no war” objective while dodging the “retaliate when fired upon” rule that appears to be in place.
- Have we cut any deals? As the situation intensifies, one creative solution that emerges is to trade the Soviet removal of missiles in Cuba for the US removal of missiles in Turkey. The quid pro quo of this is endearing, but if it were to happen, it can’t be seen to have been a deal, especially under threat.
Although the international diplomacy and threat of mass devastation may not be part of your regular workplace collaborations, there is a lot to be learned here about flexing some of the areas of the system (e.g. assumed “rules” and indicators) to keep focussed on the success that everyone can get behind. “World peace” can rank pretty high on the noble cause scale, but reminding people of a larger agenda can be very effective in enabling creativity and managing unavoidable conflict.