Cassandra calling: Margaret Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness”

It’s one thing to miss an iceberg when you’re sailing in the pitch dark, but how do you explain ignoring an iceberg straight ahead of you, in broad daylight?

Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011) examines how individuals and organizations become blind to obvious risks, sufferings, and failures. Ignoring what’s right in front of us sometimes comes at a terrible cost. She writes:

Whether in the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, Madoff’s funds, the embers of BP’s refinery, the military in Iraq, or the dog-eat-dog world of sub-prime mortgage lenders, the central challenge posed by each case was not harm that was invisible — but harm that so many preferred to ignore.

Financial Times book of the year finalist

I’ve been guilty of some willful blindness myself! I’ve had Margaret’s book on my shelf for a couple of months, fully intending to read it, but not until spying an announcement of its finalist status for the Financial Times 2011 Business Book of the Year did I spend some quality time with it this evening.

Now that I’ve had a good taste of the book, I’m hungry to finish off the whole meal. This is an insightful, fact-filled, well-written work, blending full-blooded stories with scholarly insights. If you want to understand why people and institutions make monstrous errors of commission and omission, this will give you some explanations.

The lessons of Cassandra

The most resonant chapter to me is “Cassandra,” drawing upon the figure from Greek mythology who was granted a gift of prophecy and then cursed by a “fate that no one would believe her.” Writes Heffernan:

The world is full of Cassandras, individuals whose fate it is to see what others can’t see, who are not blind but compelled to shout their awkward, provocative truths. That’s why, after any industrial or organizational failure, individuals inevitably surface who saw the crisis coming, warned about it, and were mocked or ignored.

This surely explains why whistleblowers typically face ostracism and retaliation!

We often distance ourselves from the Cassandras of the world, but Heffernan urges us to heed them. “Cassandras,” she notes, “show us that we don’t have to be blind.”

Validation vs. revelation

For anyone who has spent an appreciable stretch working for a dysfunctional, top-down organization, Willful Blindness may be more of a validation than a revelation. I’m sure a lot of Heffernan’s readers are nodding their heads in agreement as they move from chapter to chapter.

And therein lies the challenge: How do we get those who are prone to willful blindness to heed the lessons of this important book?

Personal note

I’ve known Margaret since she and her husband spent several years in the Boston area roughly a decade ago. (We met in a weekly singing class at the Boston Center for Adult Education and even joined up to form a small group that sang at senior homes!) She brings to her writing a wealth of common sense and CEO-level leadership experience, and she has emerged as a thoughtful opinion leader on organizations and business life.

I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing a lot more from and about Margaret in the years to come.


For Margaret Heffernan’s website, go here.

3 responses

  1. Oh, THIS one’s going on my Amazon wish list! It confounds me, too, how people who are supposed to be such super-geniuses in their respective Oh So Important (TM) fields fail to see what us regular people can see–and will wind up paying for when they fail. “Willful ignorance” is one of the few answers that makes any sense.

    (I’m not so much for the use of the term “blindness,” since I’m trying to wean myself away from using ableist language, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and look forward to seeing her insights.)

    • Lisa, yes indeed! The Best and the Brightest all too often are not. As they say, the danger comes when you start to believe your own press clippings…

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