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Closed Circle Syndrome

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The coverage of former FBI director Louis Freeh's report on the 14-year cover-up of the child abuse scandal associated with Penn State's football program gives us a peek into an issue I've thought about for a long time: Closed circles.


Closed circles are like black holes in physics: An actual, physical force. The gravity they generate is so great, not even light can escape; and anything that ventures near the event horizon will be sucked in and will (essentially) disappear.

It is clear from even the most cursory reading that paramount in the minds of Joe Paterno and the university leadership was protecting the football program. Penn State football was Joe Paterno. Paterno was PSU football. Period.

It was a closed circle - in this case a closed circle of men, but it is not clear to me that would have mattered - that plotted among its membership and only among its membership.

Even if one of the members of the close circle had wanted to do the right thing and call in outsiders for guidance or prosecution, the enormous gravitational pull of not wanting to be the one that "let Papa Joe down" stopped them.

It's easy to say, "I would have done the right thing" and we all hope we would, but it is never as easy to do from within the circle as it looks like it should be from without.

We see these closed circles all the time in business and politics.

In the midst of the shut down fight with President Bill Clinton, I was called back to Washington to join the political staff of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

I had worked around, for, and with all of the players in Newt world, so I was not an outsider being brought in; I was a family member returning.

We talked about the dangers of becoming a Closed Circle, but in the intense pressures of dealing with the Clinton White House, (not to mention the other 434 Members of the U.S. House) the circle inexorably tightened until, like all Closed Circles, we shut everyone else out.


We even developed a syllogism with which we teased ourselves. If someone came to us with an idea or suggestion we would say:

"We're very smart, very creative guys. We've been doing this for a long time. If that were a good idea we would have already thought of it. Ergo, it's not a good idea."

Sounds silly, but that's the mindset you get into even when you are actively trying to prevent it.

Every White House suffers from the Closed Circle syndrome. This one does. Every previous one did.

There is always a small clutch of staff that a President trusts above all others. The pressures to make difficult decisions from among often not-very-good choices, in time spans that are at a minimum stupid, and at a maximum deadly weighs upon every President and getting information - often in the shorthand that long-time associates adopt - from trusted sources becomes the standard operating procedure.

From where the Closed Circle is getting their information becomes part of the sequence. If the outside source is trusted, then it makes it through the Closed Circle membrane and is passed on to the President (or the Speaker, or the Chairman of the Board). If not, the Circle quickly closes and that source will never be heard from again; sucked into the black hole.

The danger of the Closed Circle Syndrome is that the same ideas get recycled being presented with different heading, in a different font, but containing nothing new.

President Obama, a few days ago, made a major announcement regarding the expiration of the "Bush-era tax cuts."


This was a perfect example of the Closed Circle Syndrome: Absolutely nothing new in the thinking, no new strategic direction, and no expectation of a different outcome (which, in this case is nothing).

Yet, the members of the Closed Circle got to send out orders, demand briefing papers, edit press releases and official statements, and generate activity at the campaign headquarters in Chicago.

Too often the Closed Circle Syndrome mistakes activity for progress.

As in the Penn State scandal, the Close Circle Syndrome produces few winners, but many losers. Lives are ruined. Careers are wrecked. Jobs are lost. Businesses fail.

The best cure for the Closed Circle Syndrome is to follow the advice of those gurus of high finance and business, James Rado & Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot who wrote the words and music for Hair: "Let the Sunshine In."

Easier said than done.

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