Vacating the Stupid Zone

I can think of a lot of things about running huge cutting-edge publicly traded companies that must be hard - lots of money involved, lots of people involved, big stakes, big egos, big-time scrutiny.

But some things are pretty basic. For one thing, people don't like snoops; nor do they like being the target of snooping campaigns. They don't like to have their phone records or their family members'phone records obtained illegally. They don't like being under surveillance.

They don't like it even when it's called "pretexting," which simply means impersonating someone to access his or her personal records.

If you engage in snooping on a large scale - or hire expensive people to do your dirty work for you - odds are it's all going to come out and you will end up looking like you shouldn't really be in charge of an important Fortune 500 company. And before long, you probably won't be.

Whatever Patricia Dunn, the recently departed chair of California-based Hewlett-Packard, was or wasn't thinking when she authorized spying on her own board members as well as members of the media - supposedly to uncover the source of leaks to the press - it's clear that she overlooked the stupidity of it all.

Did she and her cohorts really think nobody would figure out what was going on? Presumably folks who are selected to be on the boards of directors of major companies are pretty smart; so are most reporters.

And were Hewlett-Packard officials actually surprised at the reaction from the general public and public officials as well as those who were spied upon? Are they completely unaware that privacy concerns rank pretty high on lists of what's on people's minds?

The California attorney general used the term "colossally stupid" to describe the H-P shenanigans; they are apparently illegal as well. Dunn is under criminal indictment, even though she says she has done nothing to merit such indictment. In Washington, a house subcommittee hearing came down hard on Dunn and some of the others involved in the spying.

Stupidity, of course, strikes at all levels. You expect it - or at least aren't so surprised by it - at the lower levels of human endeavor. Case in point: the confederacy of dunces that tried to sell Coca-Cola secrets to Pepsi a few months back. It's mildly astonishing that they thought they could pull off such a feat without getting caught; but it seems that the folks at Pepsi, who turned them in, are smart as well as ethical - a pretty good business combination, actually. (The Hewlett-Packard folks might want to take note.)

At least some of what shows up as high-level stupidity must result from the isolation and the insulation that comes from being surrounded by people who only tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. It's like reading your own press releases; if nobody ever tells you that you're wrong, it's probably easy to fall into the habit of thinking that you are right all the time.

None of us is immune to stupidity, but most of us, in our working lives, come up with a system of checks and balances to help us through stupid-prone situations. Some of us are lucky enough to have colleagues who can provide a sounding board, help us think things through or offer counsel ranging from a simple, "Why?" to a diplomatic, "Maybe you should re-think that" to a more direct and to-the-point, "Are you out of your mind?"

Presumably, the higher you ascend, the more difficult it may be to get unfiltered information. Everybody wants to please the boss. Nobody wants to point out the deficiencies in the emperor's new clothes. And it's certainly more pleasant to get compliments than to hear criticism.

Combine all that with top-level pressures to improve performance, enrich stockholders, appease the board, present an appropriate public face - and that adds up to a pretty full plate.

It makes you wonder whether top CEOs and company chairs would be well-served by giving themselves regular reality checks. Maybe they should get out a little more. Leave the entourage behind and step outside the executive suite.

Chat up the folks on the assembly line. Answer their own telephones. Bring an egg salad sandwich to the employee break room at lunchtime and get a sense of what's really going on. It could be enlightening.

Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend. E-mail her at