Why Modi may need a Robert Kennedy

External stimulus and inputs provided to a leader.

By Robinder Sachdev

Robinder-150-x-150NEW DELHI: This is the fourth in a series of seven columns that are trying to understand some of the key dynamics that will shape a government in India headed by Mr. Narendra Modi, should he become the Prime Minister of India next month. If Modi assumes office, he shall be under pressure and face expectations as rarely few have ever seen in the history of any democracy. Beyond the day that he gets elected, Modi’s most important and perhaps sole task will be decision making – day in, and night out. What to do, how to do, when to do, and so much more.

There is an arguable but interesting research out there which says that an average person has about 48 thoughts per minute, or about 70,000 thoughts per day. Whatsoever be the number of thoughts that come into your, my, or a leader’s mind, one thing is very clear – there are only two kinds of thoughts that enter any mind. One is the set of thoughts that we create ourselves; and, the other is the set of thoughts that are given to us by someone, by something, or by any external stimuli.


This column focuses on this second category of thoughts – the external stimulus and inputs – that are provided to a leader. The quality of these external thoughts that a leader absorbs and is subjected to determines the quality of his or her decisions, and hence his or her actions, and hence the destiny of a nation.

Most of the external thoughts provided to a leader are by close confidantes, cabinet colleagues, the bureaucracy, and the media. Media may set off many actions or reactions, and is the subject of various other studies, yet it is the circle of confidantes, cabinet, and bureaucracy that provide key inputs based upon which a leader often takes decisions.

Groupthink and the Bay of Pigs

In social science, there is a remotely known theory of groupthink. This theory essentially concludes that when a charismatic leader asks for advise, his advisors may presume that the leader and the advisory group to which they belong, want a certain pre-determined outcome. Therefore, the advisors will offer only those facts and reasons that will propel the leader and group towards an outcome that the advisors think the leader and the group wants and will like.

Advisors may not offer independent objective advise whereas that is what the leader may really need and genuinely ask of them. This phenomenon of advisors not offering objective advice, but rather only reinforcing biased ammunition to the leader and the advisory group to which they belong, can be described as groupthink.

It may not be an exaggeration to share that perhaps we all experience groupthink in our everyday lives, every day – ranging from the decisions at home, to our office environments, to our behavior in our social engagements. It may be one of the ways in which we keep the peace in our lives by conforming and not dissenting to what we assume are the headwinds – be it a decision of where to go for a dinner, or the market segment which we must really target, since the CEO seems to be passionate about a particular segment in his boardroom presentation.

We indulge in groupthink for various reasons – from lazy, to our desire to live in polite and non-confrontationalist social environments, to a personal strategy to conform among our peer groups, especially if we assume that future rewards may be linked to our present group behavior.

When operating at the national and global theater, no leader or his advisors can afford to be prey to groupthink since there are no soft options when it comes to national interest. The decisions taken in a cabinet of ministers are not the same as a polite conversational consensus that we may have over a cup of tea at a friend’s home. The decisions taken by a leader and his leadership council have serious consequences – for the national interest, for the leader, for the advisors – and for the citizens of a nation.

Your column submits that a leader must keep an eye out for groupthink like the cholera.

Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Within 100 days of assuming presidency in 1961, in fact on the 88th day, President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. forces to launch the botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro. The invasion was as total a disaster as can be, and an embarrassment to the nascent Kennedy administration which could have sunk Kennedy’s presidency.

However, Kennedy was agile, and reinvented his leadership style about how he would take decisions in future. When, soon after in 1962, the U.S. faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy scripted a very different method to his leadership. This second crisis, in contrast to the Bay of Pigs, was thankfully better handled by the U.S. and averted a doomsday scenario.

Later, in the 1970s, social scientists started to study the decision making of Kennedy before and during both of these events. They found that though Kennedy had inherited the Cuban invasion plans from the Eisenhower administration, yet his senior advisors did not question the invasion because they assumed that Kennedy wanted to go ahead with the plans. The CIA was not questioned about its assumptions of Cuban forces, any doubts were ignored, and a water-tight case was made by Kennedy advisors to justify the attack. The advisors wanted to conform to the group, and thought that the group and the leader wanted to attack Cuba, and each advisor therefore gave advice that corroborated that an attack of Cuba will be the best thing since sliced bread. Kennedy’s advisors led him to disaster.

But after the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy must be credited for learning quickly about “groupthink” in his first 100 days! When the Cuban Missile Crisis blew up about a year later, he made a radical change in his decision-making process. This time, even though the advisors and personalities around Kennedy were the same people as during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy changed the method of his decision making. He convened a committee of the National Security Council composed of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, his brother Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and his cabinet members. The committee was tasked to explore and present various courses of action to be taken to manage the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Saying that he did not wish to influence or bias the deliberations by being present during those meetings, the president recused himself from the committee. In addition, he tasked Robert Kennedy to play the role of Devil’s Advocate within this committee. Robert Kennedy therefore argued vigorously against every contemplated strategy put forth by the advisors in order to force the group of advisors to think about as many different dimensions and options and their merits and de-merits. The Cuban Missile Crisis was thankfully resolved, in no small measure to this mechanism of John Kennedy to avoid groupthink in his administration.

Since the first case study of groupthink around the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, social scientists have examined a host of other case studies where groupthink among advisors has led a nation and leader to unfortunate outcomes – Pearl Harbor attack, the Watergate scandal, the Iraq war, and the Afghanistan war, to name a few.

Why Modi may need a Robert Kennedy

By all accounts as appearing in Indian media, it seems that Narendra Modi is a charismatic and strong personality. Thus it is quite possible that his circle of advisors and cabinet may get awed by his personality and therefore some or many of his advisors may want to rubber-stamp what Modi says without offering him real and useful information. They may miss the point that if Modi gets new, different information then he may in fact change his decision.

In case Modi becomes the Prime Minister of India – there will be a range of questions on which he will have to take decisions. When Modi faces these decisions he will have the usual 70,000 thoughts per day. Of these, may be half will be thoughts that will be generated in his own mind, and another half will be those that come as external inputs from his advisors, bureaucrats, or well-wishers.

Modi must watch and monitor the quality of these external thoughts that he receives. A leader does not need his own clones in the room who each will only mirror him, and not offer anything new. A leader needs honest and genuine ideas, and imagination among his advisors. To succeed and deliver in India, Modi must consider if he should put into place a mechanism to pre-empt groupthink in his government – and if he needs a Robert Kennedy.

(Robinder Sachdev is a global thought leader in opto-politics. The author defines opto-politics as the phenomena beyond geo-politics. In addition to the reality of geo-political, and geo-economic, forces, world affairs are increasingly being shaped by the images, optics of these forces. Opto-politics is the interplay of images and geopolitics.)

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