Over the weekend, I got sucked into a Twitter thread--an amazing theory, really--about the 74th anniversary of when the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And I realized it contains a key lesson for anyone who leads teams or makes big decisions.

The author of the thread is Alex Wellerstein, a history professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. who studies nuclear weapons, and it has to do with the circumstances surrounding the orders to drop the atom bombs--especially the second one, on Nagasaki.

To understand his theory and see why it's so important even now, we need to set the stage with a quick chronology of events in the last few months of World War II:

  1. January 1945. President Roosevelt is sworn in for his fourth term as president, this time with a new vice president: Harry S. Truman, who had been a senator from Missouri. The two men are not close, and in fact will meet only a handful of times before Roosevelt dies just four months later.
  2. April 1945. Upon Roosevelt's death, Truman becomes president. Truman has never been informed of the atomic bomb project. He's finally briefed on it for the first time at the end of April, two weeks after becoming president.
  3. May/June 1945. Germany surrenders, but Japan fights on. Military planners tell Truman to expect as many as 1 million U.S. casualties in the planned invasion of Japan.
  4. July 1945.  The military tests the first atom bomb in New Mexico. At the end of the month, Truman goes to Potsdam, Germany to meet with Churchill and Stalin. They're basically divvying up Germany and planning how Europe will look for the next 50 years, and Truman is at a big disadvantage because he's never dealt with either leader before.

At Potsdam, Truman gets his first briefing on how the New Mexico test worked, and he learns about the military's plans to use the bomb against Japan, starting with the first attack, scheduled for August 6.

According to Wellerstein, Truman asks what the "schedule" is for other attacks. In response, the military shows him a memo that reads

"First one of tested type should be ready at Pacific base about 6 August. Second one ready about 24 August."

The U.S. military did in fact drop the first bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. But, Wellerstein suggests that the second bombing against Nagasaki days later was possibly a complete surprise to Truman.

The argument is that when the military showed him that memo about a "tested type" of weapon, it didn't also emphasize that there was another weapon--of a type that hadn't just been tested. So, Truman would have thought he had two more weeks, at least, to make a decision about another attack.

But that was arguably a complete misunderstanding.

As part of that argument, Wellerstein points out that the day after Nagasaki, Truman immediately took control of the scheduling, by issuing an order that additional atomic bombs were "not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President." 

Truman was also reportedly aghast at the scale of civilian casualties from the bombs.

I find all of this fascinating and grim from an historical perspective.

Is is really possible that the U.S. military wound up dropping an atom bomb, in part because the commander-in-chief didn't realize they were going to do it--and thus nobody told them not to?

I think it also is the kind of historical story that has clear lessons for leaders today, in business or any other pursuit.

As a leader, you probably find yourself telling your team over and over that there's no such thing as a dumb question, and trying to improve communication.

But do you give yourself permission to ask questions of your team? Do you "check small things"?

And are you ever afraid to do so--even though you're the boss--because you don't want to come across as naive, or less competent, or even just because you don't want to be annoying?

I can imagine a million examples.

Your technical team says it can be sure it will have a new product ready by the weekend. Does that mean Friday close of business, or first thing Monday morning?

A marketing director tells you she wants to try a new campaign in Portland. Is that Maine or Oregon?

What's the single most important thing that your team thinks you understand--but you wake up at night realizing you don't, really? Or at least you're not sure.

Obviously the stakes aren't anywhere near as high as in warfare. But I think great leaders will always spend time trying to identify those kinds of miscommunications.

And ask more questions.

Published on: Aug 12, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.