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The Problem of Misleading Success

Poor thinking does not necessarily reveal itself immediately as such. The fact is that even thinking of the most absurd kind may prove successful for a time, if it caters to the egocentrism and prejudices of people and fits into an established logic of power. We can see this clearly in a historical context if we examine some of the Facist thinking which, though deeply flawed, was accepted by highly intelligent people, including leaders of German industry, in the 1930's and 40's.

Winston Churchill (1948) summarizes the thinking of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf:

Man is a fighting animal; therefore the nation, being a community of fighters, is a fighting unit. Any living organism which ceases to fight for its existence is doomed to extinction. A country or race which ceases to fight is equally doomed. The fighting capacity of a race depends on its purity. Hence the need for ridding it of foreign defilements. The Jewish race, owing to its universality, is of necessity pacifist and internationalist. Pacifism is the deadliest sin; it means the surrender of the race in the fight for existence. The first duty of every country is therefore to nationalize the masses; intelligence in the case of the individual is not of first importance: will and determination are the prime qualities. The individual who is born to command is more valuable than countless thousands of subordinate natures. Only brute force can ensure the survival of the race; hence the necessity for military forms. The race must fight; a race that rests must rust and perish. Had the German race been united in good time, it would have been already master of the globe. The new Reich must gather within its fold all the scattered German elements in Europe. A race which has suffered defeat can be rescued by restoring its self-confidence. Above all things the Army must be taught to believe in its own invincibility. To restore the German nation, the people must be convinced that the recovery of freedom by force of arms is possible. The aristocratic principle is fundamentally sound. Intellectualism is undesirable. The ultimate aim of education is to produce a German who can be converted with a minimum of training into a soldier?(pp. 55–56)

Despite the absurdity of this thinking, the vast majority of Germans came to accept it, including, we should emphasize, the heads of German industry. German industrial leaders were quite willing to work within the confines of (absurd) Nazi ideology—as long as it brought profits. For almost five years, this thinking seemed to produce economic and military success. German industry thrived. German aggression triumphed. Fascist ideology flourished.

History provides us with many examples of successful, but poor, thinking based on the Immediate-Gain-Above-All-Else mentality—i.e., the plantation system based on slavery; the factory system based on child labor; Stalin's system of forced labor; and more recently, the asbestos industry, the tobacco industry, and the nuclear power industry. More pointedly, of special note are the American Oil industry's success in taking advantage of the monopolistic practices of OPEC to achieve windfall profits or the global emphasis on short-term economic gain over environmental health. Short-term thinking that sacrifices the public good may bring immense short-term profits. The long-term costs of their thinking are enormous, and often go far beyond the strictly economic dimensions of life.

For example, historians generally agree that Hitler could not have succeeded without the support of the heads of industry. The cost of their thinking—along with that of their fellow Germans—included upward of 50,000,000 lives lost and untold human suffering. We should never assume that individuals will automatically think critically, not even people of high position or high intelligence.

The problem of short-term vested interest thinking can be found both on a large scale and in everyday "mundane" business practices. In one case, a United States District Court Judge in Norfolk, Virginia found that the nation's largest income-tax preparation company had engaged in false advertisement in using the phrase "rapid refund" and other terms "deliberately intended to disguise expensive loans that Block arranges for people anticipating refunds on their income taxes." The judge found that Block had gone to great lengths "to conceal the reality that, rather than receiving refunds, clients were taking out high interests loans to obtain their money a few days sooner." He pointed out that in some loans "the annual percentage rate charged was more than 500 percent." He also roundly condemned the company for "signing consent decrees promising not to engage in false advertising," and then after "they consented to one state's order they have simply taken their advertisements to a new jurisdiction and continued to run similarly offensive advertisements." (New York Times, Business Day, February 28, 2001)

Test the Idea Short-Term Thinking

Can you think of any situation in which you experienced problems that resulted from "short-term thinking?" Can you identify how, in this situation, attachment to a short-term goal prevented someone from recognizing significant problems for the future? In your experience how widespread is the problem of short-term thinking? Some might argue that short-term thinking, even thinking such as implied in the quote above by the Block company executives, is good business thinking if significant scandal can be avoided.

A key question is how can organizations, both small and large-scale, avoid defective forms of thought, i.e., rigid thinking, short-range thinking, bureaucratic thinking, ideological thinking, or just plain unethical thinking? That is, how can organizations, in the light of predictable obstacles, cultivate critical thinking as an organizational value? How can we, situated as we are, persuade leadership in the organizations in which we live and work that critical thinking is a key to long-range growth and dynamic change fueling that growth? Our answers to these questions will emerge as we synthesize our thinking at the close of this chapter.

We can advance the discussion now by exploring some of the connections between competition, sound thinking, and success.

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