At 6:30 PM on June 24, 1950, President Harry Truman received word that the North Korean army had invaded South Korea. This development set off a series of decisions on the part of the president and his national security team culminating in the sending of American troops to Korea as part of the United Nations police action. Although Truman’s initial goal was to push the North Koreans out of South Korea and return Korea to the status quo ante, things did not turn out this way. The United Nations troops ended up invading North Korea in a drive to reunite the two parts of the country, which ultimately brought the Chinese into the war. What started out as an action with a limited objective morphed into the three-year Korean War.
In technical parlance the Truman administration fell victim to “mission creep.” They lost sight of the original and relatively limited objective and got the country stuck in a very costly war for limited gain. While “mission creep” is dangerous under all circumstances, it is especially dangerous when lives are at stake. It should be noted that avoiding “mission creep” does not preclude adjusting one’s goals as opportunities or challenges present themselves. However, such adjustments must be made with the realization that they are veering away from the original goal and must be evaluated rationally in light of this fact. “Mission creep” occurs often in a subtle manner, with the decision-makers unaware that their decisions are changing direction from the original objective.
It is instructive to examine some of the mistakes the Truman team made so that leaders can learn to avoid similar pitfalls. According to former White House Situation Room director Michael K. Bohn in his new book, Presidents in Crises: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama (2015), the Truman team faltered because “Periodic enlargement of crisis objectives, without full consideration of potential untoward consequences, led to even more risky situations. Also, wishful thinking about the unlikelihood of a Chinese counterattack led Truman and his team to discount very real battlefield risks” (p.23). This attitude developed after the North Koreans were successfully pushed back and total victory became conceivable. Bohn, in a recurring theme in the book (based on Clausewitz), underscores the importance in crisis decision-making of not taking the first step without thinking about what the last step is going to look like. The Truman team failed to imagine a last step not in line with their best-case scenario.
The Truman team fell victim to “groupthink.” Psychologist Irvin Janis defined groupthink as, “The psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups” (p.22). The Truman team consisted of likeminded men who valued consensus. Unfortunately, this cohesion not only prevented divergent thinking within the group, it also discouraged outside experts and advisors from coming forward with views and opinions not in line with the decision-makers’ thinking.
To prevent groupthink and mission creep, leaders must ensure that they have a divergent team of advisors who are not afraid to speak their minds. While the team should share underlying loyalties and long-range goals, to succeed they should also resemble Lincoln’s “team of rivals.”
The importance of preventing mission creep and groupthink can be seen in this week’s Torah reading. The parsha begins with Moshe assembling all of Bnei Yisrael to teach them the mitzvot relating to the construction of the Mishkan. However, he first enjoins them to observe the Shabbat by refraining from doing any form of prohibited labor. Rashi explains (35:2) that the Torah preceded its elaboration of the building of the Mishkan with the mitzvah of observing the Shabbat to underscore that although building the Mishkan is of extreme importance, it does not supersede Shabbat. Therefore, all activity associated with the building of the Mishkan must cease with the onset of Shabbat.
Commentators elaborate on this Rashi and explain that Hashem feared Bnei Yisrael would get carried away with their enthusiasm for building the Mishkan and come up with all sorts of rationalizations to justify continuing to work on Shabbat. The Torah anticipated the contemporary concept of “mission creep.” The purpose of the Mishkan was to allow for a more obvious sensation of the Divine presence. This being the case, building it on Shabbat would detract from the Divine presence, as Shabbat itself is the ultimate vehicle to experience G-d’s presence. But in their enthusiasm, Bnei Yisrael might forget that and come to believe that the purpose in building the Mishkan was the Mishkan itself rather than the creation of a vehicle to bring them closer to Hashem.
The Torah also teaches us how to prevent groupthink. Moshe’s command to assemble all the tribes – with their individual proclivities, interests and skills – reminds us that before we embark on a major project or make a fateful decision we must get a wide-range of views and perspectives. Likewise, the lead builders of the Mishkan were Bezalel, from the tribe of Yehudah, and Ohaliav, from the tribe of Dan. Two different people from two very different tribes worked together to ensure that the project went forward with multiple sets of eyes supervising it. If taking steps to prevent groupthink was necessary when building the Mishkan which was done under the guidance of Moshe, it is certainly necessary with regard to projects and decisions taken under less inspired conditions.
President Truman made some very difficult and monumental decisions. And to his credit he always assumed responsibility for them. After all, he was famous for the sign on his desk that proclaimed, “The Buck Stops Here.” However, it would have been helpful for him and histor, if he had advisors giving him a broader range of opinions as to whether it was indeed a worthwhile and good “Buck.”