Five Leadership Themes from One Minute to Midnight

I recently read One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs. As the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in October of 1962, Dobbs provides insights into the perspectives of Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, and John F. Kennedy. This book contains several quotes and leadership themes that I find valuable. Here are five leadership themes from One Minute to Midnight:

1. Lack of flexibility in determining the strength of the enemy.

American officials initially thought there were roughly eight thousand troops in Cuba. In reality, there were five times that number. The number of ships going in and out of Cuba were accurately counted by the U.S. They were miscalculating how many people would fit on each ship. The Soviet soldiers endured conditions that American officials did not consider because American soldiers would never be subjected to them.

The U.S. also failed to properly address rumors and concerns of nuclear capability on Cuba earlier than they could have. The Kennedy administration ignored a British report of nuclear weapons on the island because they believed the Cubans were embellishing their power.

2. Slow communication is dangerous communication.

The two most important leaders took twelve hours to send messages to each other. In the end, a misinterpretation of a Kennedy ultimatum forced Khrushchev to withdraw missiles and troops. When communication is slow, both sides assume the worst intentions. Then, emotional hatred festers to people underneath the leaders.

Any individual on the lower levels of the leadership hierarchy had the power to escalate aggression. That is how conflicts often become wars. During the tense couple of weeks near disasters were narrowly everted. An American plane mistakenly flew over Soviet territory. Soviet military personnel at sea were often unaware of changes that were happening in real time of American blockades or the expected response from Khrushchev.

Moments of fury and rage do require a break to collect one’s breath, but they are moments. Twelve hours is too long to collect breath. Diplomacy won at the end of the tension, but one decision by people only loosely connected to the leaders could have altered everything.

3. Changing course when a goal is not worth the sacrifices.

Dobbs used this quote from JFK,

“The people deciding the whys and wherefores had better make mighty sure that all this effort is headed for some definite goal, and that when we reach that goal we may say it was worth it, for if it isn’t, the whole thing will turn to ashes, and we will face great trouble in the years to come after the war.”

Kennedy and Khrushchev demonstrated humility by recognizing that their power should not lead to World War III or kill thousands of innocent people. In the same vein that people wonder how history would have changed had Hitler had access to the atomic bomb, if Castro had the same power to deploy nuclear weapons the Cuban Missile Crisis might have changed.

Fortunately the American and Soviet leader understood the big picture. First of all, deploying a nuclear weapon in the first place was a radical step up in aggression for either side. Second, if a nuclear weapon was deployed by one side, there was no easy way to deescalate. Despite the cost of alienating his relationship with Castro and the physical tole of sending thousands of men to Cuba and back home, Khrushchev recognized what was at stake and abandoned his plan.

Kennedy risked another public relations nightmare after horrible planning and execution of the Bay of Pigs at the outset of his Presidency as the days moved on. Ultimately he was willing to give up the nuclear missiles in Turkey. The quick strike ability for the U.S. and NATO was not worth the threat of nuclear war.

4. Protecting a large ideal for many could mean a huge individual sacrifice.

By withdrawing troops and decreasing missile proximity, Kennedy and Khrushchev endured sacrifices individually. Kennedy eventually was killed by a man with Cuban nationalist connections. And for Khrushchev, he suffered a major political loss. In about a year he was out of power partially because of this perceived embarrassment. The fact that JFK privately promised Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles in Turkey in five months to save face politically with NATO was lost on Soviet. Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s decisions at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis were best for world peace. They positively served the majority of the world. Yet, they could not keep their jobs because of other people’s views of this conflict. As the least powerful party involved, Fidel Castro somehow stayed in power for over forty years.

5. Surprises occur more frequently in high stress leadership situations.

The quote from the book that resonated most for me was the circle of influence a leader has in intense moments.

“History, Kennedy understood, does not always flow in predictable directions. Sometimes it can be hijacked by fanatics of various descriptions, by men with long beards, by ideologues living in caves, by assassins with rifles. At others, it can be yanked from its normal path by a combination of chance events, such as an airplane going astray, the misidentification of a missile, or a soldier losing his temper…The likelihood of an unpredictable event occurring that can change the course of history is always greater at times of war and crisis, when everything is in flux,” (Dobbs 340).

For leaders outside of the military, war is not an option, but crisis is. Anticipating what the unpredictable event is would be impossible – that is why it is unpredictable. Having principles for when an unpredictable happens though will lead to a more disciplined and balanced reaction.

This was the eighth book of the off-season plan. If you have any recommendations for books worth reading please share in the comments or on Twitter. 

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