Management lessons from Saddam

I’ve always been fascinated and entertained (i.e. amused) by the types of business books that become en vogue at various times. A few years ago, I started noticing a particular type of book that took a historical figure unrelated to business and extracted key lessons from that person for application to your business. I’m talking about books like Jesus CEO : Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, Lincoln on Leadership : Executive Strategies for Tough Times. Well, of course these guys were great leaders — but what about leadership trainwrecks? What can we learn from them?

Knowing how to do something well sometimes means analyzing how something was not done well. I picked up a paper copy of Foreign Affairs for a recent cross-country flight was particularly attracted by the article “Saddam’s Delusions: The View From the Inside” (online in full text — very cool), which has key excerpts from the recently declassified book-length report of the USJFCOM Iraqi Perspectives Project. I highly recommend reading it. Saddam is an extreme case, but it was interesting to me how some of his greatest leadership failures mirror those I’ve seen (and perhaps been a part of) in my work life. The behind-the-scenes story is pretty incredible. Read and learn how Saddam dealt with key management issues.

Dealing with bad news / demanding loyalty over constructive criticism:

This constant stream of false reporting [from the Military Industrial Commission, set up by Saddam as a means to sustain the military during UN sanctions] undoubtedly accounts for why many of Saddam’s calculations on operational, strategic, and political issues made perfect sense to him. According to Aziz, “The people in the Military Industrial Commission were liars. They lied to you, and they lied to Saddam. They were always saying that they were producing or procuring special weapons so that they could get favors out of Saddam — money, cars, everything — but they were liars. If they did all of this business and brought in all of these secret weapons, why didn’t [the weapons] work?”

Members of the Military Industrial Commission were not the only liars. Bending the truth was particularly common among the most trusted members of Saddam’s inner circle — especially when negative news might reflect poorly on the teller’s abilities or reputation. According to one former high-ranking Baath Party official, “Saddam had an idea about Iraq’s conventional and potential unconventional capabilities, but never an accurate one because of the extensive lying occurring in that area. Many reports were falsified. The ministers attempted to convey a positive perspective with reports, which were forwarded to Saddam’s secretary, who in turn passed them up to Saddam.” In the years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, everyone around Saddam understood that his need to hear only good news was constantly growing and that it was in their best interest to feed that hunger.

A 1982 incident vividly illustrated the danger of telling Saddam what he did not want to hear. At one low point during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam asked his ministers for candid advice. With some temerity, the minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, suggested that Saddam temporarily step down and resume the presidency after peace was established. Saddam had him carted away immediately. The next day, pieces of the minister’s chopped-up body were delivered to his wife. According to Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaysh, the head of the Military Industrial Commission and a relative of the murdered minister, “This powerfully concentrated the attention of the other ministers, who were unanimous in their insistence that Saddam remain in power.”

Making big decisions in isolation and thinking “from the gut” (aside from Stephen Colbert: “Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut.”)

A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in dreams. These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition. Questioning his dictates brought great personal risk. Often, the dictator would make a show of consulting small groups of family members and longtime advisers, although his record even here is erratic. All of the evidence demonstrates that he made his most fateful decisions in isolation. He decided to invade Iran, for example, without any consultation with his advisers and while he was visiting a vacation resort. He made the equally fateful decision to invade Kuwait after discussing it with only his son-in-law.

Micro-management:

After 1991, Saddam’s confidence in his military commanders steadily eroded, while his confidence in his own abilities as a military genius strengthened. Like a number of other despots in history who dabbled in military affairs, Saddam began to issue a seemingly endless stream of banal instructions. He could not resist giving detailed training guidance.

On hiring:

Saddam truly trusted only one person: himself. As a result, he concentrated more and more power in his own hands. No single man could do everything, however; forced to enlist the help of others to handle operational details, Saddam used a remarkable set of hiring criteria. As one senior Iraqi leader noted, Saddam selected the “uneducated, untalented, and those who posed no threat to his leadership for key roles.” Always wary of a potential coup, Saddam remained reluctant to entrust military authority to anyone too far removed from his family or tribe.
. . . .
After the war, senior military officers constantly remarked on Qusay’s lack of military knowledge [Qusay was Saddam's son who he had put in charge of the elite Republican Guard, despite almost no military experience] and his unwillingness to take their “good” advice. But even these flaws were not sufficient to explain everything that went wrong. The evidence shows that many of Qusay’s advisers were also unqualified, while those who were qualified often kept silent even when given an opportunity to speak.

Major General Barzan Abd al-Ghafur Sulayman Majid, commander of the Special Republican Guard, was fairly representative. Before the war, coalition planners generally assumed that the quality of Iraqi military officers improved as one moved up the military hierarchy, from the militias to the regular army, to the Republican Guard, and then to the Special Republican Guard. It stood to reason that the commander of the Special Republican Guard — Iraq’s most elite fighting force — would be highly competent and loyal. In fact, after the war, Barzan’s peers and colleagues were all openly derisive of his abilities. Saddam had selected Barzan, one general noted, because Barzan had several qualities that Saddam held dear. “He was Saddam’s cousin, but he had two other important qualities which made him the best man for the job,” this general said. “First, he was not intelligent enough to represent a threat to the regime, and second, he was not brave enough to participate in anyone else’s plots.”

Workplace surveillance and lack of trust of employees:

. . . constant surveillance was the rule. As one officer explained, “All phones in the Republican Guard office were monitored and all meetings were recorded. High-ranking officers were subjected to constant technical monitoring and surveillance in and out of their homes. The Republican Guard Security Office monitored all aspects of senior Republican Guard officers’ lives, including their financial affairs and diet. Republican Guard Security Office personnel even questioned the guards at senior officers’ houses to see what they could learn about the officers’ lifestyles. The Special Security Office knew how many times I went to the bathroom. Republican Guard commanders were not trusted to conduct any movement or even so much as start a tank without permission. Requesting retirement was impossible because the regime would assume one opposed them politically, and one would be arrested and jailed.”

Trying to pump up the troops with talk about “spirit” when resources are sorely lacking:

In the end, Saddam determined that the most important factor for military success lay in the sprit of the warrior. Saddam considered instilling ideological commitment to the Baathist cause to be the best way to prepare Iraq’s soldiers for war. Saddam told his officers that Allah wanted to insult the United States by giving his strongest personal abilities to the materially weak Iraqis. Because Saddam perceived the Baathist spirit of the Iraqi warrior to be far superior to anything American soldiers were capable of bringing to the battlefield, he overlooked the many factors eroding the foundation of his military’s effectiveness.

The conclusion of an Iraqi training manual sums up the regime’s attitude. “Military power,” it reads, “is measured by the period in which difficulties become severe, calamities increase, choices multiply, and the world gets dark and nothing remains except the bright light of belief and ideological determination. . . . If [a soldier] ignores [his] values, principles, and ideals, all military foundations [will] collapse. He will be defeated, shamed, and [his] military honor will remain in the same place together with the booty taken by the enemy. The President, the Leader Saddam Hussein asks, ‘Would men allow for their military honor to be taken by the enemy as booty from the battle?’ “Iraq’s was not the first army to place “spirit” over the reality of firepower and steel, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Extraordinary stuff — be sure to read it.

One thought on “Management lessons from Saddam

  1. Nice article you found, thanks. It is amazing how many military leadership things you can translate to business. Napoleon, Rommel, Montgomery, the lot of them. Napoleon divided up his army in different unit sizes than his opponents – how do you line up your business divisions? Management from a distance or basically in the front line tank like Rommel did?

    If you think it is important that information from througout your company reaches you, are you willing to do innovative strange things because of it? Like Montgomery who had some seven or so 18-20 year olds driving around his army all day that had absolute freedom to look at everything and even to question generals? Just to get Monty his info?
    :-)

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