There are many kinds of war hero. Those who show physical courage are obviously the most impressive to us cowardly, stay-at-home types, but moral courage is just as heroic, and much harder to find, especially in the conformist culture of the military.
So it was an act of extraordinary bravery for Colonel Lawrence Sellin to criticise the “PowerPoint mentality” of the US high command in Afghanistan. He must have known that he would be fired for it – as indeed he was. Perhaps only a 61-year old reservist could say what he said: a young career officer would be understandably more reluctant to go against the military Establishment.
As we observed in the case of General Stanley McChrystal a few months ago, it was necessary for his superiors to fire him, not in spite of the fact that he was telling the truth but because he was telling the truth.
What he said applies to more than the mismanaged war in Afghanistan. Many organisations are paralysed by a mindset that is obsessed with how a strategy can be presented and that ignores the real question of whether or not the strategy actually works.
This is itself a symptom of a deeper problem: the shortening attention span which is the curse of 21st Century Western culture is infecting even top executives. They would rather think in terms of bullet points than research and analyse a situation in detail.
PowerPoint can be a very useful tool, but it must not be forgotten that it is only a tool. There is a real danger that a skilful PowerPoint presentation can generate an artificial certainty, so that “the medium becomes the message”. The fact that it makes a strong visual impression gives it an authority that is divorced from the facts on which it is meant to be based. A PowerPoint presentation becomes “the truth” simply because it is a PowerPoint presentation.
Even the person doing the presenting is vulnerable to the false sense of security radiated by PowerPoint. Entrepreneurs are most at risk. Nobody is checking our work, but we must bear the consequences if we make lazy assumptions or we start to believe our own hype.
Use PowerPoint to convince others – but never as a substitute for thinking things through.