Margaret Heffernan: An interview by Bob Morris

Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, Chief Executive and author. She was born in Texas, raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University. She worked in BBC Radio and television for 13 years. She was one of the producers of Out of the Doll’s House, the prize-winning documentary series about the history of women in the twentieth century. She designed and executive produced a thirteen part series on The French Revolution for the BBC and A&E, featuring Alan Rickman, Alfred Molina, Janet Suzman, Simon Callow and Jim Broadbent and introduced both historian Simon Schama and playwright Peter Barnes to British television.

Leaving the BBC, she ran the trade association IPPA, which was once described by the Financial Times as “the most formidable lobbying organization in England.”

In 1994, she returned to the United States where she developed interactive multimedia products with Peter Lynch, Tom Peters, Standard & Poors and The Learning Company.

She then joined CMGI where she ran, bought and sold leading Internet businesses, serving as Chief Executive Officer for InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation. She was named one of the Internet’s Top 100 by Silicon Alley Reporter in 1999, one of the Top 25 by Streaming Media magazine and one of the Top 100 Media Executives by The Hollywood Reporter.

2011 saw the publication of her third book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, (published by Simon & Schuster in the UK, Bloomsbury in the US and Doubleday in Canada) which was shortlisted for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book award. Margaret blogs for the Huffington Post in the US and the UK, and for CBS Moneywatch (formerlyBNET).

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Morris: Before discussing Willful Blindness, a few general questions. Which person has had the great influence on your personal growth?

Heffernan: Hard to choose one. My parents gave me a great work ethic; he also taught me that it is often the most junior people who know best what is going on in an organisation.

My employees showed me that, in the end, we don’t work for ourselves but for others.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Heffernan: Probably a BBC producer Piers Plowright. He was a bold experimenter and developed terrific levels of artistry through his willingness to try things that sometimes failed.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) in the past that set you on the career course since then? Please explain.

Heffernan: No epiphanies, more of a continuous development. I think I’d always wanted to write but, until I’d lived a lot, had nothing to write about. After running 5 businesses, I think I felt I’d found a subject. I’ve always gone through life – and business – asking questions.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have achieved thus far?

Heffernan: My formal education gave me, I think, a pretty intense habit of rigorous scrutiny. It taught me to ask questions and challenge answers. I think that all walks of life require critical thinking and that that is what my formal education taught me.

Morris: In recent years, which aspect of the business world have you found most difficult to understand? Why?

Heffernan: Increasingly I think I’m baffled by the bifurcation of business and society. The more remote these become to each other, the more dangerous and unstable the world becomes. Many people understand this on an individual basis but are not prepared to act collectively to change it. Some of this is short term thinking, and I guess I’m always baffled by the degree to which we choose short term comfort at the price of long term risk.

Morris: To what extent do you agree with Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the world today is “hot, flat, and crowded”?

Heffernan: I agree with his assertions though I’m often less persuaded by Friedman’s proposed solutions.

Morris: In your opinion, are business opportunities better, worse, or about the same today as they were (let’s say) 3-5 years ago? Please explain.

Heffernan: There are always huge business opportunities for those with the courage and expertise to seize them. That’s no different now than it was 3,5,10 years ago. Businesses spring from problems -and we always have plenty of those.

Morris: In your opinion, are business opportunities better, worse, or about the same today for women as they were (let’s say) 3-5 years ago? Please explain.

Heffernan:  Business opportunities for women are abundant but so too are the obstacles that women face. We are still a minority in most organizations even though a lot of lip service is paid to diversity. After 50 years of concerted effort to be treated as equals, women are still marginalized and trivialized, very much to the detriment of the organizations they attempt to serve. That there are so few women on corporate boards shows the degree to which equality may be accepted intellectually but not in real life. There’s really no excuse for this any more: the talent pipeline is bulging. What women confront is entrenched bias and I think we have consistently underestimated how hard it is to eliminate that.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Willful Blindness. When and why did you decide to write it?

Heffernan: I decided to write it after I’d finished writing 2 plays for the BBC about the collapse of Enron. The judge in the trial of the Enron CEO and Chairman referred to the legal concept of willful blindness. At the time that I was writing the plays, the banks were imploding and a lot of pundits were running around saying this was a ‘black swan’ event, that no one could have seen it coming. This was willful blindness on an epic scale and it made me want to understand how we make such colossal errors.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Heffernan: I don’t think I’d understood before quite how different our individual selves are from our social selves – that we have at least 2 identities that see and do quite different things. Nor had I fully appreciated the degree to which we will reconfigure reality in order to preserve and protect our self-regard.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does it differ significantly from the book you originally envisioned?

Heffernan: When I write a book, I outline it extensively; this is so that, when I’m embroiled in the detail, I don’t lose sight of where I’m going. So to that extent, the finished book was exactly as I envisaged it. On the other hand, the sheer emotional distress implicit in willful blindness was something I learned as I went along. But it is very hard, now I’ve written the book, to remember what I didn’t know when I started!

Morris: Are you suggesting that the blindness you discuss is intentional and if so, can be avoided? Please explain.

Heffernan: It can, I believe, be reduced but not eliminated. In part this is because some forms of willful blindness are quite useful – after all, if we confronted our own mortality each morning, we might not get up in the morning; denying it – and getting out of bed! – is quite creative. Nevertheless, I think there are things, as individuals, we can do to protect ourselves against the dangerous aspects of willful blindness. And I feel highly committed to the idea that organizations can do a very great deal to avoid being blindsided.

Morris: As you already know, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her concept, “The Five Stages of Grief,” in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. The first stage is denial. Based on your research and what you have learned about denial, is it a temporary or permanent defense?

Heffernan: Neither; it is intermittent depending on the characteristics of the danger we confront.

Morris: Your chapter titles are especially appropriate to the content within each. Here are a few. Please explain its relevance to willful blindness. First, “Love Is Blind”

Heffernan: Love is blind because when we love someone, we become blind to their faults and weaknesses.

Morris: Next, “Dangerous Convictions”

Heffernan: Our most passionately held convictions blind us to disconfirming data. Our beliefs attract confirming data and repel whatever does not fit in.

Morris: “The Ostrich Instruction”

Heffernan: Most people are deeply averse to conflict. In a situation where conflict emerges, or change might be required, they’d often prefer to stick their heads in the sand. This is, of course, a highly exposed position in which to be found.

Morris: Finally, “Cassandra”

Heffernan: Cassandras are those who can see things others can’t. Their vision is rarely believed and they find themselves alone.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of Willful Blindness for various Amazon websites, my own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see, and fail to see what they do not expect to see. What are your own thoughts about that?

Heffernan: This is sometimes but not always true and there’s much we can do to enhance our powers of perception. At the very least, we can abjure multitasking, recognize the cognitive deficit of fatigue and aim to surround ourselves with people very different from ourselves who are prepared to challenge us.

Morris: When is willful blindness appropriate? Why?

Heffernan: It can be useful in situations where there absolutely is nothing to be done – e.g. during the Blitz it was helpful to go out dancing (and raise morale) whereas confronting the sheer horror of the war would have proved debilitating.

Morris: In the final chapter, “See Better,” you offer several suggestions that can help people to avoid willful blindness. For those who have not as yet read the book, which of those suggestions do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty following? Why?

Heffernan: People often resist the idea that they’re surrounded by people like themselves; they prefer to imagine they are more eclectic than most of them are. And they imagine that they are more courageous and non-conformist than they are.

Morris: To what extent can willful blindness be used to serve strategic purposes?

Heffernan: I don’t believe it can. Organizations are always stronger to the degree that they see widely and are capable of handling dissent.

Morris: What gives people the capacity to change willful blindness?

Heffernan: Sometimes it is the past: having been blind once and suffered the consequences, they may be fierce in seeing more. Sometimes they’ve had positive experiences – like Gayla Benefield – and understood that their ability to see is positive, constructive and pro-social. Others simply recognize that not being blind is intrinsically liberating.

Morris: In the final paragraph, you cite Shakespeare’s Lear who eventually learns through painful experience to see better. You remind me of the paradox of Oedipus who finally understood (“saw”) several horrible truths only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his wife and mother, Jocasta. Are there any other such moments that come to mind with regard to the process by which to see better?

Heffernan: Both Lear and Oedipus illustrate the degree to which NOT seeing is dangerous and, ultimately, tragic. My argument is that seeing – daring to see – is both enriching and safer.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Heffernan: Well, you could have asked me about News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal, or the Olympus scandal, or John Corzine or the general failure of corporate governance or the failure of the EU to solve the sovereign debt crisis…and I would have said that I never imagined that willful blindness was so pervasive or persistent. When I was writing the book, I felt a great sense of urgency because the cases I saw (especially Deepwater Horizon) were so immediate. But now I see that willful blindness is NOT a topical subject but an eternal one.

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Margaret Heffernan cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.


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