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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Executive-Level Decision-Making in Zero Dark Thirty

At the risk of WAY over-aggrandizing the practice of an ERISA/compensation lawyer, I wanted to try to connect the subject matter of Zero Dark Thirty to a certain aspect of the compensation practice.  No, we ERISA lawyers don't save the world - believe me, I get that.  But I do think that, on the executive-compensation side, there is a relevant perspective that emerges from the process by which we got UBL (as the movie calls him).

Representing executives and companies seeking to hire and retain executives, one can, I think, gain an appreciation for the special nature of those who steer the ship with the force of their decisions.  People shape institutions, and I think sometimes many forget how critical the human factor at the decision-making point can be to how institutions ultimately act.  Look at the Apples and Disneys and Microsofts, etc., etc., of the world, and tell me, honestly, that you think they'd be the same in the absence of those who built and shaped them.

So how the heck does all of this tie to Zero Dark Thirty, and why did that movie lead me to proselytize about the role of the executive?  I've been fascinated by the role of President Obama in pulling the trigger on the mission that resulted in our finally getting UBL, particularly given the apparently lack of unanimity among his advisors.  Without trying to be political,* I think that Obama's stewardship regarding the UBL operation, and regarding later strikes against those who would seek to destroy the world as we know it, have been nothing short of spectacular.  Do people really think that executive-level decisions don't matter?!?  Maybe the decisions of others would also have led to the impossibly** successful UBL mission, but I'm not sure I'd bet on it.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not suggesting that corporate executives generally have decisions before them that are anywhere near as weighty as those the President has to make.  But I think my basic premise is nevertheless valid - executive decisions, and executive decision-making, are crucial to the shape and substance of an institution. To me, a lesson here is that we should not underestimate the importance of the people we place in key positions.  There's a reason good executives are compensated at high levels.  Look at the business operations of businesses (private and public alike) that try to skimp on the compensation of their leaders, and maybe it's not surprising when they struggle under failed leadership.  You get what you pay for, so to speak.

Now, with Zero Dark Thirty, we learn of the significance of other CIA players who may not have been at the very top of the executive decision-making heirarchy.  The movie portrays the efforts of Maya (who represents the real-life Jen, although "Jen" isn't her real name either) as being efforts without which we might still and forever have been chasing UBL.  The importance of her own belief in her analysis, and her dogged pursuit of a course of action informed by that analysis, is striking.  Indeed, without this one woman, an entire reality - a reality in which the United States finally rid the world of UBL - might never have come to pass.  It's an epic reminder that we should be careful not to underestimate the importance of individual people who have the ability to shape institutional conduct at various levels in the chain of command.

Anyway, if you want to be "proud to be an American,"*** and, if you're looking for a dramatic cinematic portrayal of a person who, through her ability, dedication and tenacity, made a Difference of utterly historic proportions, see Zero Dark Thirty.  Please.

 * Indeed, I think it's possible that you could be surprised about my overall politics based on what I'm writing here.

** To quote or at least paraphrase Mark Twain, the only difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.

*** Dwayne "The Rock" Thompson's tweet, sent just a wee bit before (!!) our President gave the rest of us the news (oh boy).

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