Posted by: Rael Kalley | May 29, 2010

43. Where have all the leaders gone?

Watching the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster unfold on television over these past few weeks one cannot help but question whether this thing called “leadership” exists anywhere in this world or if it has taken its rightful place in history alongside dinosaurs and unicorns – other extinct or mythical species.

According to CNN, The CEO of BP, after initially labelling the disaster as “tiny” and “meaningless” publicly stated his commitment to not leaving the Gulf until the situation is resolved.

This was right before he boarded a flight to Britain to attend a party in celebration of his 54th birthday.

I can only assume that the families of the eleven crew members who perished were included on the guest list.

While I did not personally hear his pledge to remain in the Gulf and provide any assistance possible and did not witness his Breakdancing and Karaoke performance at his party I could not pull my eyes away from the TV when I watched a news clip a few days earlier.

A few days prior to take-off this gentleman and his counterparts at Halliburton and Transocean testified in Washington.

It seems these three have been well schooled in the little known discipline of Circular Testimony.

This is a hugely powerful evasive technique, so secretive it is only taught to CEO’s at the highest levels and only after they have signed pledges of secrecy under threat of having to fly commercial should they ever divulge this technique to lesser mortals.

I’m sure you want to know all about this so at great personal risk, I shall now reveal the mystifying secret of Circular Testimony that is used by CEO’s and other leaders whenever anyone attempts to hold them accountable for anything. 

Before reading further you must vow to never share this with anyone. OK?

Question from a person in authority (in this case a U.S. Senator): “Who is responsible for this disaster?”

Circular Testimony (CT): The three CEO’s (H, D & L) rise and immediately position themselves into an equilateral triangle, all the while spinning to their left while pointing accusingly at their counterpart to their immediate right. Not a word is spoken. Mime is the preferred medium for establishing blame. 

Senator: “Who caused this to happen?”

CT: The three CEO’s (H, D & L) rise and immediately position themselves into an equilateral triangle, all the while spinning to their left while pointing accusingly at their counterpart to their immediate right. Not a word is spoken. Mime is the preferred medium for establishing blame.

Senator: “Whose negligence led to this catastrophe?”

CT: The three CEO’s (H, D & L) rise and immediately position themselves into an equilateral triangle, all the while spinning to their left while pointing accusingly at their counterpart to their immediate right. Not a word is spoken. Mime is the preferred medium for establishing blame. 

Senator: “Which of you should have prevented this?”

CT: The three CEO’s (H, D & L) rise and immediately position themselves into an equilateral triangle, all the while spinning to their left while pointing accusingly at their counterpart to their immediate right. Not a word is spoken. Mime is the preferred medium for establishing blame. 

Senator, exasperated: “Should we break for lunch?”

CEO’s, in unison, after conferring with legal counsel: Yes sir. Excellent question, sir.”

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly but truly, those three danced around each question and pointed fingers at each other so elegantly I thought they were contestants on “Dancing with the Stars.”

And so I began to think of the many examples of absence of leadership we witness so frequently.

The company that announces 5,000 layoffs at a press conference conducted by a young assistant from Public Relations.

Shouldn’t the CEO be front and centre explaining why 5,000 families may no longer be able to pay their mortgages?

His reason for the layoffs may be perfectly valid, necessary, but why isn’t he the one delivering the bad news?

Or the three geniuses who flew to Washington in their private jets to beg for a handout?

They’re obviously proof that ascending to lofty CEO status may dictate that one be smart, but not necessarily bright.

I have one word for these non-leaders – optics.

There is an old story that is often referred to as the Caesar’s wife syndrome. It says that not only did Caesar’s wife have to be pure – she had to be seen as being pure.

The moral? It doesn’t matter what your intention is, what matters is how your behaviour is interpreted.

Many years ago, during the Tylenol scare, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson publicly accepted responsibility for the product tampering, made no effort to deflect blame elsewhere, immediately committed huge sums of money to recalling the product and developing tamper proof packaging.

More recently we experienced an outbreak of Listeriosis which resulted in several deaths and serious illness. The outbreak was attributed to a particular product sold by Maple Leaf Foods.

The CEO of Maple Leaf Foods immediately sprung into action and assumed full responsibility for all that had happened. He acknowledged that the buck stops with him and spared no expense in undertaking a thorough review of their processes and implementing all changes necessary to ensure there would be no repeat of this disaster. At no time did he ever attempt to avoid blame or minimize liability.

I’m sure he, like all the others mentioned above, was constantly being cautioned by a battery of well intentioned lawyers about the potential financial risks of accepting liability but, like his counterpart all those years ago at Johnson & Johnson, chose to do what was right rather than what was, perhaps, prudent.

And maybe, just maybe, these two CEO’s were practicing extreme prudence by doing the right thing. Perhaps they understood that the cost of bad P.R. is potentially greater than the cost of settling liability lawsuits.

And so they made better choices. 

As for the CEO’s mentioned earlier? They are not bad people. They just made poor choices. 

And speaking of choices there is a new book out called “Life sinks or soars – the choice is yours.

You may want to pick up a copy.

I hear it’s pretty good.

Till we read again


Responses

  1. Your observations of vacuous leadership are a sad commentary. These are examples I use frequently in Ethical Decision Making seminars my company provides to organizations (and courses I have developed for universities and colleges). An interesting side note is the “non-response” by the CEO of BP is very similar to that of EXXON during the Valdiz oil spill in Alaska. Both environmental disasters, both preventable and both used the axiom “deny everything and demand proof.” In the latter EXXON’s denials and blame shifting cost them untold billions of dollars in lost revenue and market share that to this day they have not been able to recoup. Leadership like Johnson and Johnson’s is what we hope leadership should be, “mess up, fess up and dress up” in other words do the right thing for the right reasons, not because it is expedient to do so. Great discussion.

    By the way I read Rael’s book this weekend and to say I was delighted is an understatement. I really enjoyed it. Take the two hours to read it. It is well worth it.

  2. Isn’t it a misery when the one party best-equipped to tackle a problem (BP) can’t tackle it?

    The government is left in the unenviable position of wanting to do something — to push BP aside and say “Here, let us have a crack at it” — but not having the same expertise that BP has.

    One wonders whether BP has a team of attorneys whose job it is to “mop up” after the CEO’s promise to clean up. The CEO *did* use the phrase “all legitimate claims” when he briefly outlined what BP would pay for.

    Now to define “legitimate”…


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