Beware Cargo Cult Management

During World War II, the Allied Forces established supply bases in airfields on many islands in the South Pacific. The residents of those islands had never seen airplanes, or canned food, or many other things that the military uses to support operations. But they were intelligent people and they observed what the military people did to make all those goods show up.

This is what they saw. The soldiers would go up into a tower with little poles sticking out of the top. Then, they would pick up a small box and talk into it. Soon, the airplane would come with the goods, which the island people called “cargo.”

When World War II ended, the soldiers went home. The planes stopped coming. And, of course, there was no more “cargo.”

The island people thought that was okay, because all they had to do was what the soldiers had done, and the cargo would come. So, they built replicas of control towers or climbed up into ones the soldiers had left. They talked into a box, just like the soldiers had done. But the planes and the cargo never came.

The Islanders were members of what anthropologists call “cargo cults.” They were bright, observant people who copied behavior they believed would get a result they wanted. We call that “magical thinking.” It seems silly to us because we understand what airplanes and control towers and radios are. It’s not magic to us. It’s never magic to the magician.

But it was magic to the cargo cultists, and they tried the best they could to make it work. It’s what a lot of leaders do with the practices of other leaders or companies.

Leadership and Magical Thinking

It’s tempting to believe that by simply repeating something that worked somewhere else, we’ll get the same results. But, leadership and success are situational. A good outcome depends on all the factors in play and many of those factors may not be visible at first glance. Consider that before you adopt a practice from somewhere or someone else.

Do A Little Research

Usually, you’ll find out about a practice that interests you by reading or by hearing a speaker mention it. Before you do anything else, dig into the situation. Find out if you’ve got the facts. Was the practice accurately described? Did it work the way you heard? Is the company or the person still doing it?

Involve some skeptics. You’re probably excited about your new idea, but they won’t be. They’ll ask tough questions and point out problems and inconsistencies.

Do a Little More Research

If the practice still looks like something that would work for you, dig a little further. Tease out the factors that made the practice successful and compare them to your situation.

Talk to someone who is close to the situation you want to emulate. Ask him or her about the process, but also about the environment. Don’t simply ask what they do. Ask why it works. If you still think the process or behavior is for you, try it out.


I’m told there’s an African proverb that says that you should never test the depth of the water with both feet. Remember that when you’ve got an idea from somewhere else that you want to try.

Instead of going at it all at once, do some experiments to see if it works at your place. If it doesn’t, go no further. You’ve only spent a little time and maybe some money to learn an important lesson.

If it does work, you’ll probably have to modify it some to get it to work as well as you hope. Keep trying modifications until you’ve got it good enough to share.

Bottom Line

Don’t form your own cargo cult of ideas that work elsewhere. Research them to find out if you’ve got all the facts. Then, if you think they make sense for you, do some experiments and refinements to get it right.

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