Published: March 1st, 2011
Publisher: Walker & Company
Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was first published in 2011.
How We All Turn A Blind Eye
By Suzanne Savill
She was a Secret Millionaire on the TV series and now Margaret Heffernan has written a book which reveals a problem she believes is instrumental in crises such as the Bristol heart babies case. Suzanne Savill meets her at her home near Bristol.
Anyone who recalls seeing Margaret Heffernan on Secret Millionaire might assume they know what is coming next when she declares: "I must have made millions of ..."
After all, this is the woman who made millions as an internet pioneer in the United State, and who is now an acclaimed international businesswoman and writer. So what's the missing word. Dollars? Pounds? In fact, it is something completely unexpected. She concludes: "... sandwiches." The word is a surprise. And so is the place where she made them.
For the past three years, Margaret has left her family and her manor house on the outskirts of Bristol and spent part of her Christmas holiday as a volunteer at Caring at Christmas in inner city St Paul's.
Her annual volunteering stints began after she went to live incognito in a flat above a corner shop in a run-down area of Nottingham for the Channel 4 programme Secret Millionaire, in which successful entrepreneurs identify and then give support to community causes. Margaret who is married to Dr Lindsay Nicholson, who works in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine Department at Bristol University, and has two children Felix, aged 17, and Leonora, aged 12 went to work in a community launderette and helped with a carnival troupe, and had her eyes opened to volunteering.
"I learned how brilliantly well-organized volunteering is, which I hadn't known," she says.
"I do a lot a travelling because of my work, so the only time of the year when I can be sure I will be around is at Christmas, so Caring at Christmas in Bristol was the perfect volunteering opportunity for me. "I work in the kitchens for two days after Christmas it's one of those ones where you serve tea through the hatch. I've been doing it for the past three years I must have made a million sandwiches!
"The chefs who work there are incredible. They are very calm, there's no swearing, and no big egos. They are fantastic leaders who have all these people they've never met before turning up who they have to turn into a team.
"The atmosphere is wonderful, and the difference between the people serving and the people being served is razor thin.
"Many people don't like to see things like the impact of drugs on our society, and the effects of homelessness but I believe it's good for you to look at things you don't want to see.
"You can't change it by looking at it, but you can understand more. I'm a big believer that what prevents willful blindness is to be in places that are as diverse as possible, and where everybody isn't the same."
Wilful Blindness Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril is the title of the book that Margaret has just published.
It is a detailed examination of the perils that can ensue when organizations and individuals operate within a belief system in which they deliberately turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths.
Among the examples that she cites are the Iraq war, the deregulation of banks, personal debt, and the tragedy of the heart babies at Bristol Royal Infirmary.
"The response has been amazing, because people really get it. Everyone I talk to has an example of Wilful Blindness in their private lives or their working lives.
"But it's not just about how blind we can be, as that would be miserable reading. It's also about the people who have shown moral courage in situations of wilful blindness."
Margaret got the idea for her book after reading the transcript of the trial of Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, the CEO and chairman of Enron, the American energy company which went bankrupt after being found to have lied about its profits. "The judge in the case applied the legal concept of wilful blindness, which means if someone could have seen something they chose not to see.
"I thought that was a really interesting concept. Then the banks all started collapsing and everyone was running around saying We had no idea!', just like Skilling and Lay. But that was impossible there were too many people involved for them not to have realised.
"The idea of wilful blindness made so many things jump into shape from the silence of families with an alcoholic parent, to companies I'd worked for where everybody knew what was wrong but no body talked about it. Suddenly it made sense.
"I decided to make people aware of it, to make people more thoughtful about what they see, and to make organizations think much harder about how they organize information.
"Take Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. He had this ideology which would not let him see facts that didn't fit with his views about deregulation.
"He was a powerful person, so nobody was going to dare to say to him that he might be wrong, and he had surrounded himself with like-minded people, so they probably wouldn't say anything anyway. "Over the period of about a decade before the banking crash, everything he believed in kept on breaking down, but he couldn't admit that he was wrong."
Somehow, it is hard to imagine Margaret ever becoming so blinded by a belief that she fails to see the reality in front of her.
She speaks incisively, in a Texan accent that comes from being the daughter of American parents, albeit raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University in England.
She spent 13 years working in BBC radio and television, and later moved to the United States where her entrepreneurial talents emerged when she worked with software companies, and then bought and sold internet companies and made a personal fortune.
She reflects on the sort of wilful blindness that existed during her days at the BBC.
"It was in the days of John Birt. He was an ideologue about how businesses should be run. Everything had to be counted and accounted for, but what he didn't understand about putting in place lots of accountants was that sometimes the process of counting everything costs you more than leaving it alone," she says. What does she consider to be biggest problem with the BBC?
Without hesitation, Margaret replies: "When they bought into the myth that in order to get the right people you have to pay vast salaries.
"One of the great strengths of the BBC was that it underpaid and yet got the best talent, which saved money, could attract people to the cause, and because it attracted the most committed people, they in turn attracted the best people.
"It was a perfect virtuous circle, but it was all lost once they started paying ludicrous amounts to everyone from the director general to Russell Brand."
Margaret's straight-talking approach makes it easy to see why she is in demand to sit on company boards. Until recently she was on the boards of three businesses in the Bristol area.
"At some companies they seem to think I'm going to come in and fix them. At others they seem think I'm going to come in and bless them. Anyone who thought either of those things would have had a shock," she says.
"I tend to listen a lot and I try to figure out firstly is there anything going on here that could kill the company, and if so what needs to be done to fix it. I also look to see if there is anything missing. The main thing for me is that I can afford to be awkward. I don't depend on their favour professionally or financially.
"Something I've experienced in boards is everybody just keeping their mouths shut but saying privately Gosh, he's incompetent', or Gosh, we have a big problem', but nobody will say it in a form which means something has to be done."
Wilful Blindness Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril
By Margaret Heffernan is published by Simon & Schuster.