While at lunch with a colleague the other day, we got to talking about different aspects of power. I asked if my lunch partner had ever experienced the “power trip” that is the White House environment. “No, why?” was the answer. So I shared my own small introduction to the White House experience as an example of how easy closeness to power changes your behavior.
In the late 1970s, I read every book I could find about what went wrong with the “best and the brightest” that were running the White House during the Nixon years. I couldn’t understand how such supposedly ethical men could mess up and create the Watergate scandal. Woodward and Bernstein’s All the Presidents Men was one of the key books but there were lots of others like Jeb Stuart Magruder’s An American Life: One Man’s Road to Watergate.
While I could understand the stories at one level, I still didn’t understand how these professionals could go so astray so quickly. Then in one short week, I got my own glimpse of how being at the seat of US power – the White House – can change your behavior so quickly.
One Friday night in 1985 while heading up the development of DEC’s ALL-IN-1 in Charlotte, NC, I got a call which started with “this is the White House calling.” I immediately hung up the phone because I didn’t have any time for joking around. The phone rang again and started “don’t hang up this is indeed the White House calling.” I still wasn’t having any of it so hung up again. The phone rang for the third time and I decided to play the game to get done with it. These two guys got on the phone (the next week I found out they were two captains seconded from the Pentagon) and demanded that I get on a plane and come up to DC that night to install ALL-IN-1 on their VAX machine in the Old Executive Office Building.
I told them “No, that is not how we work.” I told them I would be up Monday morning. I shook my head and went back to work. Over the weekend I laughed and realized they could send the IRS and FBI after me. What was I thinking?
So Monday morning I go up to DC and meet with these two young military eager beavers. It turns out that Don Regan had just been named Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan and when he got to the West Wing he was appalled to find out that there were no computers, only typewriters. From his days on Wall Street, Regan couldn’t imagine how any organization could function with out computers. So he yelled and somebody at the Pentagon came running and assigned the two captains to make an “office automation system happen.”
The two captains hired a truck and went over to NASA and wheeled out one of DEC’s largest VAX/VMS 780 machines and brought it to the Old EOB. They then called up the number two executive at DEC, Win Hindle, and asked him what software they should run. Hindle suggested they give me a call and that ALL-IN-1 was the software that they needed. I spent the morning with them trying to understand what their needs were. Their goal was to get the system up and running so they could demo the software to Regan at the end of the week. Everything out of their mouths was Regan ordered this and Regan ordered that.
As usual, a lot of things weren’t working. So I got on the phone and started calling for help – back to the team in Charlotte and to our support folks in Massachusetts. Nobody was paying any attention to me and the Captains were breathing down my neck. Here I was seated in the Old EOB at the center of US political power and it took about 3 hours for me to become like everything I’d read about the best and the brightest at the Nixon White House. Everything was god awful important and I wanted immediate answers and expected immediate actions. In three short hours I’d become one of “them.”
The other thing that fascinated me is how little security there was in the Old EOB. I just had to show my drivers license to get in. I was escorted to the computer room but nobody stayed with me. I could wander the halls with ease.
We worked round the clock for a couple of days and then while waiting for software to install, I asked the captains how long they’d known and interacted with Regan. They looked at me sheepishly and finally confessed “Well, actually we’ve never met or talked to him. The demo on Friday is going to be the first time we will meet with him.”
I looked at them and went “You mean you’ve been jerking me around all week and telling me Don Regan demanded this and Don Regan demands that and you’ve never even met the man?”
Not looking at me, they said “Yes, that’s right.”
I picked up the phone and called the local DEC office and asked if they had somebody that was trained on ALL-IN-1 and had a security clearance and was used to dealing with government agencies. They did indeed. So I politely asked them to get the person over to Old EOB as soon as it was reasonable. I turned to the Captains and said “You don’t need me. I’ve arranged for somebody who is used to dealing with your power trips to come help out. I’m headed back to North Carolina to get back to developing the next version of ALL-IN-1.” And I walked out shaking my head at how quickly I had become one of them.
The postscript to this story was a couple of years later the Ollie North Iran-Contra affair blew up because of an email that wasn’t deleted when Ollie hit delete. The email software was ALL-IN-1. We put the automatic archiving feature in as a way to distinguish our software from our competitors. We thought every user knew that. Clearly Ollie didn’t. For many months we lived in fear that the press would point out that it was DEC’s ALL-IN-1 software that was used. I don’t think it ever became public.
Since that time when I am at my patient best and in the middle of the vortex of power environments of senior executives asking me to do something “immediately,” I pull out the Deming “5 Whys” to get the back story on why we are being asked to do something. It amazes me how this simple process can calm things down and get at the intent of what is needed versus a “knee jerk” demand.
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