Nobody argues the fact that Robert McNamara was a genius.
The Ford Motor Co. whiz kid who led the Pentagon into the Vietnam War, and the World Bank into unprecedented expansion, solved problems with sheer brains.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense, McNamara plucked the best ideas from his deputies and brought out-of-control contractors to heel by revamping contract systems.
But McNamara’s flaw may have been that, in a larger sense, he just didn’t “get it.”
The car guys from his early years at Ford suspected that he didn’t get cars, the soldiers in Vietnam said he didn’t get the war, and in his eagerness to lend money at the World Bank, McNamara once accused the Treasury secretary of trying to run the bank “as if it were a financial institution.”
Add to this lack of perception McNamara’s autocratic style, which stifled ideas and initiative, and you wind up with a huge blind spot.
Apparently, McNamara would start each gig well, questioning everything and reopening every issue. After that, however, he locked down his thinking and refused to listen to contradictions or alternative solutions.
Some said his reliance on numbers backfired, like the body-count syndrome in Vietnam. And quality-control problems dogged the World Bank, whose huge volume of loans created unintended consequences.
“There’s the illusion that he’s very efficient. He’s not,” a critic at the World Bank once said. “He gets involved in every little detail and decision. He filters information through his statistical approach to reality, and gets very upset by inconsistencies—large and small—in figures. He has a need to make the whole universe square statistically and he loses perspective.”
McNamara had decades to think about the lessons of war. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war in Vietnam, confessing in his memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.” He said the greatest of these was to "know one’s enemy" and “empathize with him.” McNamara died in 2009 at the age of 93.
Lesson: Back up and make sure you “get it.”
— Adapted from “The Flawed Legacy of Robert McNamara,” Carl Levin, Forbes.com. Photos: Official U.S. Secretary of Defense portrait photograph of McNamara (1961); McNamara (far right) at a 1968 Cabinet meeting with Dean Rusk and President Lyndon Johnson.