Denial is Tedlow’s latest book and, in my opinion, his most important and most valuable…thus far. As he explains in the Introduction, “Denial is the unconscious calculus that if an unpleasant reality were true, it would be too terrible, so therefore it cannot be true. It is what Sigmund Freud described as a combination of ‘knowing with not knowing.’ It is, in George Orwell’s blunt formulation, ‘protective stupidity.’” Tedlow acknowledges that there are several short-term benefits of denial (e.g. it is soothing, convenient, allows us to live in a world we have created and thus control…“while it lasts”) and that is why it is so seductive. “Denial sometimes actually works,” as with entrepreneurs who refuse to be discouraged despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of new businesses fail. Also, the inevitability of catastrophe does not mean that we personally will suffer the consequences.” In most circumstances, denial does work in the short-term.
What we have in this extraordinarily informative as well as eloquent book is a comprehensive explanation of what the subtitle correctly indicates: “why business leaders fail to look facts in the face – and what to do about it.” Tedlow carefully organizes his material within two Parts. In the first, he examines those who “got it wrong” (i.e. refused to face realities). They include Henry Ford and his denial of what consumers wanted, five major tire manufacturers (i.e. Goodyear, Firestone, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich, and GenCorp) who denied the significance of the “radial revolution” initiated in Europe, and A&P’s denial of emerging demographics and consumer preferences. In Part II, Tedlow shifts his attention to several examples of those business leaders who “got it right” at DuPont, Intel, and Johnson & Johnson.
Tedlow devotes the final chapter to providing what he characterizes as a “new point of view,” one that is guided and informed by eight “lessons” to be learned, from those business leaders who, in ways and to an extent best revealed in context, overcame he “unconscious calculus” of “protective stupidity.” Throughout his lively narrative, Tedlow’s focus is on helping his reader understand to (a) what denial is, (b) why it is so “seductive,” and (c) how to resist its appeal. The eight lessons discussed in the final chapter help to achieve that worthy objective and should be reviewed from time to time. Why? Because denial is not an all-or-nothing proposition. “It is a continuum. Individuals and organizations have the power to determine where on that continuum they fall…human brings and companies are capable of positioning themselves further toward the ‘facing facts’ end of the spectrum than the ‘denial’ end.” Resisting denial requires a continuous “battle” that must be fought every day on many fronts.
Thanks to Richard Tedlow, those who read this book will be well-armed.