CEO Coaching: Leadership Lessons From the Bay of Pigs

In a recent blog, I suggested that people keep an “I wonder…” list of questions. After traveling to Cuba last month, I came back with a few additions. Two are: “Why do we still have an embargo against Cuba when it doesn’t appear to be doing any good?” (my research says there’s no good reason, and it’s foolish and harmful to the average citizens of Cuba), and “How could the United States have screwed up something so badly as the Bay of Pigs invasion?” The latter has some lessons for all leaders. I’m not a historian, just a business guy focused on leadership, but the facts of this historical (perhaps “hysterical!”) blunder are easy to find, and there’s little debate as to what happened.[1]

As you may recall, Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government in Cuba in 1959. Castro quickly turned on the United States, nationalized American businesses (stole them), and then buddied up to the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower approved a flawed CIA-hatched plan to overthrow Castro. It went badly! Why?

This was supposed to be a secret plot, but it wasn’t. Most of the world knew of the pending invasion before it happened. So much for the element of surprise! Lesson: If you’re going to plan in secret, don’t do it in a public way! At very least, assume your competition to be competent and aware!

This operation grew into something much larger than the CIA was capable of planning and executing. You need the right people to do the right job! Lesson: As your business grows, you may need different skills and resources.

The deserted beach that the landing forces used turned out to be almost impenetrable because of a coral reef. And lo and behold, Cuba was in the middle of building a large resort on that beach, so it wasn’t deserted. Also, the large number of Cuban people expected to support the invasion was a pipe dream. Lesson: Make sure your strategic and operational plans are based on available facts, not just desired states and wishful thinking.

Although planned in the Eisenhower administration, this operation took place on President Kennedy’s watch. He wasn’t supportive from the onset, and when the wheels started falling off, he refused to send in air support for the invaders. Lesson: If you as CEO aren’t supportive of your strategy or major decisions, get a backbone and stop it! Don’t throw your lambs to the wolves!

This operation had no one in charge—just a bunch of disparate actions, inappropriately staffed, using bad information, under-resourced, and with no one in charge! Lesson: Companies, projects, and strategic initiatives need ownership!

Although Cuba turned out to be a major threat because of the Cuban Missile Crisis (where Kennedy performed much better!) when this occurred, both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations got their undies in a bundle over a non-material threat that we probably could’ve ignored. Lesson: Focus on the big stuff, and don’t get sidetracked by emotion.

I get to check this one off my “I wonder…” list and move on to the next!

[1] Pulitzer Prize winner Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer is a wonderful history of Cuba and was at the core of my inquiry.

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