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A continuing display of weak leadership

Posted May 15 2013 7:57pm
I admire President Obama in many ways, but I think he does not understand one important element of leadership.  He has repeated the following behavior:  Something goes wrong in his administration.  He expresses anger about it, and says such behavior is inexcusable, as though it is someone else's responsibility.  Then, someone falls on his sword and resigns, or someone is blamed and is fired.

A strong leader would take personal responsibility, say what he is going to do to fix the problem, and then permit himself to be held accountable for the required changes.  The President's approach emphasizes his own leadership weakness.

The two most recent examples are the inadequate steps taken by the military to avoid sexual harassment and the improper use of the IRS to investigate organizations of a certain political persuasion.  How did he react?

On the first
President Obama said today he has “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and said perpetrators are “betraying the uniform that they’re wearing,” even as a new Pentagon report indicates the problem is growing.

“For those who are in uniform who’ve experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs. I will support them. And we’re not going to tolerate this stuff. And there will be accountability,” Obama said at a joint White House press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

“I expect consequences,” he said. “I don’t want just more speeches or, you know, awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period. It’s not acceptable.”

The President is the commander-in-chief and has been for over four years. How about something that indicates the buck stops with him?

Anybody who knows me knows that I personal abhor this kind of behavior.  Although I instituted programs several years ago to reduce its likelihood, I have to accept responsibility for the fact that our efforts have not been strong enough or thorough enough.  I could offer excuses, but as people in the military say, "No excuse, sir."  I intend to work with the Joints Chief of Staff to do a top-down evaluation of what we have done so far, what works, and what doesn't work.  A part of my plan will certainly be to protect people who report this kind of behavior--whether victims or observers, whether subordinates or supervisors.  But beyond that, we will borrow the best of ideas that have been successfully employed by businesses and institutions to eliminate this kind of behavior.  I will publishing monthly reports indicating our progress.  The people of this country and in the military have a right to hold me accountable.

On the IRS problem, he said
I have now had the opportunity to review the Treasury Department watchdog’s report on its investigation of IRS personnel who improperly targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. And the report’s findings are intolerable and inexcusable. The federal government must conduct itself in a way that’s worthy of the public’s trust, and that’s especially true for the IRS. The IRS must apply the law in a fair and impartial way, and its employees must act with utmost integrity. This report shows that some of its employees failed that test.

I’ve directed Secretary Lew to hold those responsible for these failures accountable, and to make sure that each of the Inspector General’s recommendations are implemented quickly, so that such conduct never happens again. But regardless of how this conduct was allowed to take place, the bottom line is, it was wrong. Public service is a solemn privilege. I expect everyone who serves in the federal government to hold themselves to the highest ethical and moral standards. So do the American people. And as President, I intend to make sure our public servants live up to those standards every day.

The president is chief executive officer of one branch of the government and has been for over four years. How about something that indicates the buck stops with him?

The IRS is part of my administration, and I take responsibility for any misdeeds and impropriety that occur in that administration.  It would not be enough for me to say that some people acted outside of their authority and in a manner inconsistent with our political and constitutional system.  If they acted in such a way, it might reflect their wish to do something that they mistakenly thought I would condone.  Or more innocently, it might just reflect misjudgement, misunderstanding, or bad training.  Whatever the reason, I have not done enough to ensure that the standards I hold dear have been maintained in my administration.

I have directed a top-to-bottom review of our training and compliance programs.  I will publish the results of that review for all to see, and I will act on that review with specific steps and milestones and provide public progress reports on our implementation of that plan.  Meanwhile, I request that any organization that has felt itself to be abused in this manner to file a statement of complaint on a new public website, and I will ensure that the resolution of that complaint is published for all to see on that website within 60 days.  I will also request any IRS employee who feels that any organization has been abused in this manner to file an anonymous statement of complaint on a new public website, and I will ensure that the resolution of that complaint is published for all to see on that website within 60 days.

Unrealistic? Showing political weakness?  Just the opposite.

On the organizational level, by taking ownership of the problem, the President would invite the cooperation of people in the government to help solve it.  In contrast, the way he now frames it is an invitation for people to hunker down.  If they see something wrong, they will fear reporting it.  The president needs to learn from some examples of leaders.  In my book Goal Play! , I relate some of those stories.

Here's one from health care
In an article by Dr. Charles Denham, he relates the practice of nursing chief Jeannette Ives-Erickson, Senior Vice President For Patient Care and Chief Nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. When there is a screw-up in nursing, she calls the involved nurse into her office and asks one question: “Did you do this on purpose?” When the nurse answers, “No,” then Jeannette says, “Well then it is my fault. … Errors stem from system flaws. … I am responsible for creating safe systems.”

Chuck notes, “In a few short moments with a caregiver after an accident, the leader declares ownership of the systems envelope, and the performance envelope of her caregivers, and creates a healing constructive opportunity to prevent a repeat occurrence.” 

He warns us that it is easy to “automatically fall in a name-blame-shame cycle, citing violated policies, and ignore the laws of human performance and our responsibility as leaders.”

Here's one from the oil industry
A number of years ago, Tom Botts was involved in a tragedy aboard an oil rig in which he personally had to call off the search for men missing at sea. Deeply shaken, when he later moved on to be Executive Vice President for Shell Oil Company’s exploration and production activities in Europe, he decided that he would implement the most comprehensive program possible to protect workers’ safety at these remote outposts in the ocean. Notwithstanding that new program—the best in the industry—two men lost their lives on a North Sea oil rig when they mistakenly went into a portion of the facility that should have been off-limits. It would have been easy to blame the two men who, after all, entered a prohibited area. Instead, Tom launched a thorough, top-to-bottom review of the organization. He explained: 

We decided to be as open and transparent about the incident as possible and went through a “Deep Learning journey involving hundreds of people that examined in detail all the root causes that contributed to the accident to get a clear picture of the system that produced the fatalities. Even though the two men who were killed could have made better decisions, my senior leadership team and I could find places where we ‘owned’ the system that led to the tragedy. 

It was a defining moment for us when we, as senior leaders, were finally able to identify our own decisions and our own part in the system (however well intended) that contributed to the fatalities. That gave license to others deeper in the organization to go through the same reflection and find their own part in the system, even though they weren’t directly involved in the incident.

And finally, another from health care
Paul Wiles, former Pres­ident and CEO of Novant Health in Winston-Salem, NC, once told me and a group of hospital CEOs a heart-wrenching story about an infant’s death from sepsis in his hospital, which was tracked to an MRSA (antibiotic-resistant staph) infection. The infection was part of a spread of a bug in his neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) that reached 18 infants in all and may have contributed to the deaths of two others. “This was a direct result of staff not washing their hands appropriately,” he said. Since that event, “We have been on a relentless hand hygiene campaign.” 

The crux of his entire presentation was this comment: “My objective today is to confess. ‘I am accountable for those unnecessary deaths in the NICU. It is my responsibility to establish a culture of safety. I had inadvertently relinquished those duties,’” he noted, by focusing instead on the traditional set of executive duties (financial, planning, and such).

This president came into office having never really run an organization of size and complexity. He has played for years in the political environment, where the blame game is part of the culture and is viewed as a way to win the next election. Now, however, it is his last term. It would be a good time for him to learn how to be a leader of the executive branch.  By the way, it would also be good politics, as it would help establish him as a strong leader and not a weak one.  The dividends would flow to other aspects of his presidency.
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