CEO Coaching: Lessons from Cuba

A recent trip to Cuba left me speechless for three reasons: beauty, fishing, and dysfunction.

Twelve of us were on a live-aboard boat several hours off the coast for most of the week fishing for bonefish, tarpon, and permit. It was brilliant fishing, and the pristine waters (protected in part by dysfunctional policy) were superlative! The lessons from time in Havana were just as interesting but for different reasons.

Though I met wonderful Cuban people, the dysfunctional political and economic system they live in leaves me almost speechless. I’ve been to 26 countries and never seen anything like it. It’s 1959 down there! The Castro clan may know good cigars, but they miss the mark on motivation and economics by about 100 miles!

If you believe government should control prices, businesses, communal property, who gets what job, what you’re paid, and where you live, please go stay a few days in Havana. If you prefer planned economies and state-run enterprises over our very flawed but much more functional free market, dig out your Che Guevara T-shirt and go south to take a look.

The two most interesting things from a business perspective were the size and intricacy of the black market vs. the “official” economy and the screwed-up incentives based on government control. Fishing guides are paid in tips, so they make more than medical doctors! But people are smart and creative, so there are many workarounds. Although Fidel and Che did their best to crush individualism, you can still find it under the surface.

Although the United States slips more toward government control (non-elected agencies, foolish tariffs supported by both parties, etc.), I’m not concerned that we’ll get to the level of Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, or China in the near future. Incentives, however, greatly worry me, and my Cuban experience proved that misguided (even if well meaning) rewards and misunderstood human desires destroy ingenuity and desire and are disastrous to the long-term good of society. If you prefer a classless society to meritocracy, head south. If you prefer subordination of your goals to excitement and engagement at work, head south. If you prefer boredom and tedium to intrinsic motivation, head south.

You might be thinking, “What does this have to do with business leadership?” This all applies at a micro level (company) and a macro level (country). If communism is deplorable to you, then it would follow that you give your team great freedom, flexibility, decision-making ability, opportunity for open dialogue, and rewards for excellent work.

I’ve seen companies run in a totalitarian fashion that Fidel would be proud of were he still alive. Your people deserve a great place to work, and that’s on you!

Please share
Follow Me