I recently read a nifty book by James Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. Comedian John Mullaney has a bit about old guys who draw endless analogies to World War II, and I guess I am exemplifying that cliche at the moment. It’s not like I tell dad jokes or wear business socks to the beach, but I do like history it can help us understand the present as well as the past.

It’s a very good book that I hoped would be a distraction, but inevitably thoughts of the practice of privacy professionals kicks in. Maybe not for you, but for me. There are plenty of tales of heroic acts, as one would expect. I am also astounded not just by the industrial output of the US at that time, but at the ability of the armed forces to organize a supply chain and get the stuff halfway around the world. It really was an extraordinary feat of management, organization, logistics, and leadership at every level.

It’s the leadership part that always makes me think of privacy, and the work we do as privacy pros in our organizations. The Fifth Fleet was led by Admiral Raymond Spruance, who commanded the powerful force of aircraft carriers, Task Force 58, as well as an enormous amphibious force of landing craft, and the United States Marines ground forces who would seize control of key islands in the Pacific.

At the highest levels, strategy in the Pacific had been shaped not by MacArthur, but by Chester Nimitz and President Roosevelt. It centered on a plan to seize control of the Marianas Islands to build airfields that could accommodate the new B-29 Superfortress bombers. This would enable the bombing of Japan with long-range bombers from Pacific bases.

That’s why the book starts with the invasion of Saipan, in the Marianas, starting June 15, 1944. Of course, the Japanese knew the Americans were hitting Saipan, and sent a significant carrier force to stop them. This will set the stage for the biggest carrier battle of all time.

Spruance had taught at the Naval War College that commanders should forecast, “the enemy, his strength, dispositions, and probable intentions.” He amended that guidance by noting that speculating on intentions might create a false premise. Better to focus on capabilities. This makes sense, because while Sun Tzu taught in the Art of War that one should study one’s adversaries, their objectives might not be clear. Adversaries might define their self-interest differently from how you might see their self-interest.

That challenge quickly became apparent as the Japanese fleet headed east. Spruance’s subordinate, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, commanded Task Force 58, and wanted to sail west to get in range of his fighters and bombers to sink the Japanese aircraft carriers. But Spruance initially said no. This made Mitscher and his staff very testy, certain that the bookish Spruance was getting it wrong and was being too cautious.

Spruance was not being pusillanimous. He saw the objective differently. Of course Mitscher wanted to go sink enemy carriers. But Spruance knew that the strategic objective was not to sink the Japanese fleet. It was to secure Saipan and build an airfield. So he had to stay close to support the amphibious and landing forces who were still fighting for Saipan. He withstood withering criticism, but held firm in his clear sense of the ultimate objective.

Events and history would prove Spruance right. Eventually as the battle progressed on Saipan and the Japanese fleet’s whereabouts became known, Spruance released the hounds. I think he could have been more clear with his subordinates about the “why” of his decision — it could have been a teachable moment. But he was right.

I think this clash of objectives comes up for privacy teams all the time. The company’s objective might well be to earn revenue, to please stockholders, etc. The privacy team is a bit more conflicted. It certainly wants to support business objectives while mitigating legal and reputational risk. Just as we would have expected Admiral Mitscher to advocate for going to sink some carriers, we expect the privacy team in an organization to advocate for sound compliance, best practices, low-risk interpretations of legal requirements. They have to: No other org in the company is going to take a pro-privacy position so ardently and knowledgeably. They must not forfeit their essential voice in the debate.

What if in addition to revenue objectives, a company has stated to employees or publicly that consumers are a top priority, and the privacy is a key focus in the near term. What then is the key objective?

If there is a lack of clarity about what the prime directive is, conflict will ensue. Such divergence of views can arise even among the members of a privacy team, and the CPO has to clear that up.

In the end, sinking three Japanese carriers served the war effort well, just as effective privacy teams can serve the bottom line by reducing risk. The challenge for company leaders and for privacy leaders is to be clear about objectives at all times, and communicate.

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