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.


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.

Brief report on BarCamp Bangalore

Last Friday and Saturday were a complete whirlwind, but absolutely exhilirating. After traveling for just over 30 hours and arriving in Bangalore at 3pm local time (2:30am back in California), I went to my hotel to get some rest before reporting to Yahoo! Bangalore for our first international Hack Day the next morning. Then, after a fun night out with Yahoo! Bangalore hackers, it was up relatively early the next morning and back to the other Yahoo! office in Bangalore (yes, there are two) for BarCamp Bangalore.

php shirtAnd this is where the story ends. . . for now. As Tara mentions at the end of her excellent post about BarCamp Bangalore, I’m trying to write something a little more substantial and lengthy about the Bangalore experience, and if I’m lucky, it will put everything into a larger context that will be useful to someone besides me — but it’s going to take longer than a blog post and involve some research, fact-checking, follow-up interviews, and some wordsmithing.

As I was thinking about the form to drive what I wanted to write, I decided that a blog post just didn’t feel right, then Chris took care of helping me out in my thinking without really knowing it (I’m quoting out of context here, so you should read the rest):

. . . blogs are a great mechanism for communities to talk amongst themselves or for independent voices to gain an audience, but they are not entirely a substitute for a unified perspective that can connect the pieces and reassemble a complete story. The role journalists traditionally played was to tell stories that interwove diverse and contradicting views in the interest of keeping the public informed.

For all of the blogging greatness that surrounds us, sometimes the form simply falls short. While I’m digesting the Bangalore experience for the longer piece, I did want to point out the excellent stream of photos shot by Alex Muse with the faces and names of BarCamp Bangalore attendees. Most of the time, the talk in the media about countries and economies and outsourcing and GDP de-personalizes everyone involved. Scrolling through the faces of BarCamp Bangalore, I see passion, creativity, and the kind of geeky excitement that gets me up every morning. I see partners in making the world a better place through technology. I’m glad Alex took those photos.

(Note: the photo is of Kaustubh Srikanth with his mega-geeky-cool PHP shirt. Kaustubh is a new friend from Bangalore who — along with his girlfriend Tripti and fellow hacker Shreyas Srinivasan — showed Tara, Chris, and me around Bangalore last Sunday. Thanks, guys. You made me feel very welcome in Bangalore and I hope to return the favor soon.)

Yahoo! Bangalore Hack Day: a report

To put it mildly, the Yahoo! Bangalore Hack Day completely rocked. There were so many hacks at the end of the day that we had to run demos in two separate rooms simultaneously. I had an amazing time and was incredibly impressed with the energy and creativity of everyone I met. Some of the most talented hackers I have ever met are at Yahoo! Bangalore. (The free buffet Indian lunch was awesome, too.)

Here are some links to first-person accounts from Bangalore hackers:

The essence of hacking. . . and some Flickr photos by tag: bangalorehackday (with some post-Hack Day pub action)

I’m impressed that the Bangalore team one-upped us back at Yahoo! U.S. — they started their Hack Day promptly at midnight, with thirty-five hackers hunkering down for the long haul. Even more impressive, the core of that late-night group managed to take me out for dinner and beers the night after Hack Day. Their energy after having been up working for days was remarkable in comparison to my mild lethargy from a little jetlag (I arrived the day before Hack Day after 30 hours in transit and 10,000 miles in the air). Consider me impressed with their party skills as well, especially in a city that closes up pretty early.

Before closing this post, I wanted to thank those hackers explicitly. Sumeet, aka the famed “Teemus”, glad you finally got some sleep and it was good seeing you the next day at BarCamp Bangalore. Premshree, thanks for delaying your flight to hang out, and I’m glad you made it to Bombay. Gopal V, thanks for hanging out with us even though you hadn’t slept in days. Pankaj, thanks for keeping me laughing all the night. Hitesh, thanks for coming out after a long day of hacking. Finally, Kapil, glad you enjoyed the chicken. 😉

You guys are truly awesome hackers.

The Onion at Yahoo: Peter Koechley

The Onion and Web 2.0Today, I brought in Peter Koechley, managing editor of The Onion, for the weekly speaker series I run at Yahoo!

I love the Onion, and Peter’s talk did not disappoint. He took us through some of his favorite Onion headlines of the past, read some of the headlines he had written that didn’t ultimately make it (some of which were really good), surfaced a few actual reader letters (which were totally absurd), and talked about how The Onion is put together, both in print and online.

I loved the slide pictured at right, which read:

The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: we despise our users.

Besides despising users, Peter offered further evidence that The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: “You guys haven’t acquired us yet.”

Buck Owens: 1929-2006

We lost an American treasure this morning — Buck Owens has died and I am really sad about it.

Yes. . . .When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, I watched Buck Owens on Hee Haw every Saturday night with my family like just about everyone I knew (seriously), but I didn’t really know much about him beyond his famous red, white, and blue guitar.

Despite being absolutely surrounded by it (and perhaps because of that), I hated country music growing up. When I was young, it just seemed silly. When I was an adolescent, it just seemed hopelessly corny and dated. I would complain whenever my mom put on her Loretta Lynn records and she would defend her music mightily, saying, “this music is about real life.” I don’t know if it was moving out of my native South to California or just getting older, but over the past ten years, I’ve grown to love country music. If you put my iTunes collection on shuffle, you’re just as likely to get Hank Williams (Sr.), Buck Owens, or Loretta Lynn as you are to get anything else.

Over the past few years particularly, I had really grown to love Buck Owens. Buck’s song “Love’s Gonna Live Here” lifted my spirits on many occasions after a painful breakup a few years ago (a little bit of the “real life” my mother had told me about):

Oh the sun’s gonna shine in my life once more
Love’s gonna live here again
Things’re gonna be the way they were before
Love’s gonna live here again
Love’s gonna live here
Love’s gonna live here
Love’s gonna live here again
No more loneliness only happiness
Love’s gonna live here again

I was fortunate to see Buck play live twice in the past few years: once in a ridiculously poorly-attended show with Loretta Lynn (before the kids became hip to her due to her Jack White collaboration) at the Masonic in San Francisco back in 2002 (the place was 2/3 empty), and then last April at the Crystal Palace, Buck’s restaurant in Bakersfield where he played every Friday and Saturday night.

That trip with Nancy to the Crystal Palace was a landmark experience. It was so unlike going to see a famous country musician in San Francisco, where such events can be so bathed in hipster irony that sometimes it’s difficult to connect to the music. It was different in Bakersfield. At the Crystal Palace in April, Nancy and I watched Buck Owens and his Buckaroos play while we ate steak and pork chops and drank beer. We watched grandparents dance with each other, and dads dance with their daughters, and we even got in on the action ourselves. Real life — just a Saturday night in Bakersfield.

One unfortunate thing about Buck’s death it is that I had been talking with my mother about taking her to see Buck in Bakersfield really soon (Nancy had been doing the same with her mother). You see, my mother has never been on a plane and she decided recently that she needed to try flying to California to visit, and I had been holding out the visit to Bakersfield to see Buck Owens as the reward for her getting over her fear of flying. I told her about the steaks, the pork chops, the dancing, and seeing a true legend up close in his hometown. That would pretty much be heaven for my mother, and I was looking forward to giving her a distinctively Californian experience while sharing a mutual love of country music that didn’t exist when I was younger. We can still go to Bakersfield, but Buck won’t be there. The lesson in this applies to many things in life: there is no time like the present. Sometimes “later” never comes.

We’ll miss you, Buck. My thoughts and prayers are with your friends, family, and fans. Rest in peace.

Notes from Mashup Camp

Unfortunately for me, some pressing work obligations came up on the second day of Mashup Camp so I wasn’t able to attend, but I did make it the first day and had a great time while I was there. I apologize to people I missed. David Berlind and Doug Gold did an amazing job putting it all together and deserve massive praise. has a nice story about the camp and how it all works.

A few quick random notes (work is insanely busy these days, so this will be short):

In one session, (“Chicagocrime and the ScrapePI“), I watched Adrain Holovaty demonstrate his amazing super mashup.

Did you know Wikipedia has a third-party API? I didn’t: This an example of a “ScrapePI,” an API against information that has been scraped.

I also talked with Chris Law about some of the stuff we’ve been doing at Yahoo, particularly the “hack days” I’ve been running (explained very well by Jeremy after our first one). One of the reasons I’m so bummed about missing the second day is that I really wanted to see how the Mashup Camp hackathon went compared to our Yahoo! hack days. According to Edward O’Connor, Podbop won the “Best Mashup” award (check out the other entrants with vote totals). Congrats!

Bradley (my boss) is blogging

If you want to know more about one of the key people driving some of the coolest stuff happening at Yahoo, subscribe to Bradley Horowitz’s blog now. (Bradley happens to be my boss).

I first met Bradley in person when he was on a panel I was moderating at the Syndicate conference last May. A week or so before that, I got an e-mail from Caterina saying something like, “Bradley used to be in a punk rock band in Detroit and he cleared the way for bringing Flickr to Yahoo! You guys should meet.” Thank you, Syndicate, and thank you, Caterina. You did me right.

Be sure to scan Bradley’s bio for an entertaining read and check out Bradley’s first post, “Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers.”

Link: Jeremy welcomes Bradley to the blogosphere.

How the world works

Last month, my good friend Andrew Leonard launched How the World Works (RSS feed), a blog that (in Salon’s words) “aims to bite off small pieces of the big story, while at the same time engaging with the vast complexity of the Internet’s multi-threaded dialogue on the global economy.” The “how the world works” concept debuted with Andrew’s “The World in an iPod” piece in which Andrew literally cracks open an iPod and follows the pieces and parts throughout the global economy. This isn’t just “cool” reporting about the innards of the iPod — globalization is inarguably the story of our times. The “How the World Works” blog picks up where that left off with posts about taking back the word “globalization” (favorite quote: “I’m sure I am not the only person who has a kind of sick fascination with melting icecaps”) and the Camu Camu plant as an illustration of the concept of “bio-piracy” (I wasn’t aware of the Camu Camu plant or the idea of “bio-piracy”. . . until now). I am so subscribed.

I owe Andrew a lot, both personally and professionally (he edited the one and only story I ever wrote for Salon, “The American Way of Snacks,” about a gigantic convenience store convention in Orlando I attended — it’s all 100% true, I tell you!) When I was at Salon leading a team that was implementing open source software all over the place, Andrew’s writing served as a philosophical backdrop for the actual in-the-trenches work we were doing. While I was settling into my first few months at Salon, Andrew was busy interviewing the people who were leading the charge for the software my team was rolling out: Larry Wall (Perl), Richard Stallman (all the GNU stuff), Eric Allman (sendmail), and Eric Raymond (well, no particular software, but “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” was important philosophically). I’m pretty sure that Andrew’s story about Apache (on a general interest web site in 1997!) first piqued my interest in Salon. And there’s this story about Linux that ran literally as I was packing my bags for Salon and California (I arrived the following week). And there’s a lot more open source stuff where that came from.

I found an old SFGate story (no longer available on, but still at the Internet Archive) that put it this way:

Along with Salon’s managing editor Scott Rosenberg, Leonard is responsible for creating what is possibly the world’s first technoculture think-tank, where engineers work alongside writers to make high technology useful and elegant, complicated but accessible. And Leonard’s advocacy of free, open source software gives this think tank its moral imperative.

That quote is probably a tad too breathless (nothing like slim budgets to nudge you towards the “moral imperative” of Linux), but the spirit is on target. Salon was actually running Windows NT with the absolutely dreadful Netscape 3.5 web server (yuck) when I arrived in the summer of ’98, and the tiny tech team needed all the inspiration we could muster to turn that around (and we did, as talked about on Slashdot, PC World, and Webmonkey). It was pretty easy to keep our spirits high when we could depend on Andrew to give us a break from our own hacking and regale us with the tales of his latest interviews.

I’m looking forward to more great stuff from Andrew — welcome to the blogosphere, my friend!

Bonus link: Andrew’s fine reporting on a condom patent lawsuit is definitely worth a read if you missed it the first time around.

John Battelle, the Yahoo! TechDev Speaker Series, and the "Flickrization" of Yahoo!

John Battelle visited Yahoo! yesterday and wrote about it on his blog (see perspectives on the talk from Jeremy, Matt, and Nate. I took the blurry photo you see on your right). I invited John to speak for somewhat obvious reasons (he just wrote a book about search) but it was more than that. As the old saying goes,”journalism is the first draft of history.” If you look at John’s track record with Wired, the Industry Standard, the Web 2.0 conference, his Searchblog and now his book, John is the rare journalist who often seems to be writing the first draft of the future. That’s impressive.

John Battelle @ Yahoo!

Originally uploaded by jchaddickerson.

As Nate notes in his blog, these talks are a regular weekly feature at Yahoo! known as the “TechDev Speaker Series” — “TechDev” because it’s run by the Technology Development Group within the Search division at Yahoo! (that’s my group). Bradley Horowitz (our leader extraordinaire) started it last summer and handed it over to me a couple of weeks after I started at Yahoo! in August. His only instructions were: “Find interesting people for the series. Surprise me.” Bradley had already set the bar high by bringing in people like Chris Anderson, Mark Pauline, and Philip Rosedale (among others).

Since I took over the series, other than John Battelle we’ve had (in no particular order):

An impressive list without a doubt (and thanks to the folks within Yahoo! who’ve helped me bring some of them in). The subject matter of the series is intentionally broad and multi-disciplinary in nature. Chris Anderson spoke about the Long Tail, while Mark Pauline told us about hacking together fire-breathing robots for his performance art pieces with Survival Research Labs. Lawrence Lessig talked about how broken U.S. copyright law is in the digital domain and was followed the next week by Mark Hosler of the experimental and sound collage “band” Negativland, who gave us the artist’s perspective on the issue.

I think the multi-disciplinary content and focus of the speaker series as it continues to develop hints at something I’ve been noticing about Yahoo! in my first four months there. While Yahoo! continues to attract top talent with stellar computer science backgrounds, there’s another type of person Yahoo! seems to be attracting as well in what some have called the “Flickrization” of Yahoo!: folks who skipped the CompSci degree but built amazingly cool things on the web (I think the two complementary sides of Yahoo! are evident in the backgrounds of two Yahoo! employees recently named as top technology innovators under age 35 by the MIT Technology Review, for example). To me, working at Yahoo! these days is a heady mix of art and science (just like the web itself), and I’m glad to be a part of it. It rocks.

Bono, Mark Hosler, and lost opportunities

Mark salutes Yahoo! So, Bono from U2 was here at Yahoo! yesterday (here’s the Flickr photo). As I’ve mentioned here before, we had Mark Hosler of Negativland pay us a visit barely a month ago. For the uninitiated, Mark and Negativland were sued by U2 for copyright infringement (see the Negativland entry in Wikipedia for details) in one of the landmark copyright suits in the history of pop music (I’d put it up right there with George Harrison being sued for copyright infringement for appropriating the melody of the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” for his song “My Sweet Lord”). They lost the suit.

If you were to super-impose the Bono photo on the Mark Hosler photo in this blog post (they were both in the exact same lobby — building D on the Yahoo! Sunnyvale campus), Mark would be mock-saluting Bono from behind. I wonder if it would have been a slightly different “salute.” Now that would have made a good photo.