Character and opportunity


Reading American Prometheus and loving the clash of the titans. Diversity does infuse a team with capability. While character and talent are helpful, timing and opportunity are critical. Once I was in a Fighter Pilot museum in Arizona and watched a little movie. Unremarkable but for one statement: heroism is when character meets opportunity. Effectiveness is the same. No one can plant seeds in a parched, infertile, windswept field and expect a good crop.

Oppenheimer was the creative, charismatic genius who established the conditions for discovery - vision, information sharing, freedom, personality. General Graves was the rigid barnacle who provided the framework in which the scientists could function. He was the agent, managing the authority and resources needed. The circumstance of urgency and political will, in addition to timing and resources provided the fertile field.

In periods of growth and urgency, corruption is mitigated. In times of decline or complacency, it is like the stuff you throw on cadavers to accelerate decomposition. With legitimate authority, effective people can push aside the parasites who use an organization as their own resource, with little regard to meeting its objectives.

Safeway (my company) is perfectly representative of this. There is the functioning periphery - the stores. They run on a system of quite effective reports and processes. Everything is accounted for. Success is transparent - operational costs and sales - and store managers are held accountable for them.


Back at headquarters, the people who had nominal success in the field, and outrageous success as cronies are using the company as their own trust fund and playground. Entire departments with very fuzzy product (Leadership Development and Diversity come to mind) exist to provide high end jobs to personal friends of our senior leaders. These people came from the store ranks and have no idea of what they don't know. This situation is pretty prevalent in organizations everywhere, but really, it wastes millions and progressively drags the company down. The company is also typical in that it's populated by fully competent, well motivated people who just need the right circumstances to really achieve our stated strategic goals of increased market share, reduced operating costs, effective investments and retention of superior work force.

Instead, they are allowed to maintain acceptable productivity, while having their effectiveness dissipated in nonsense tasks. This keeps them from establishing any base of legitimate power within the organization. We all know at headquarters that a company officer can sweep in any time and completely upend a program in progress. This, essentially, keeps people in their place and allows the usurpers of the company unchallenged control.

...the vicissitudes of human nature and power...

Back to Oppenheimer - after his period of usefulness in a time of crisis and change, his character became a liability. He endured methodical debasing and faded away. His moment of opportunity was spent, and his character became irrelevant.

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