More than 40 years ago, Simon and Garfunkle sang their famous lament, “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?” Judging by recent news reports, maybe today’s question should be, “Where have you gone, Harry Truman?” Truman’s “the buck stops here” perspective on executive accountability seems to be sadly missing from the current age.
Did He Really Just Say That?
For the past few weeks, the”phone hacking” scandal centering around News Corporation executives has been plastered across front pages around the world. I have to admit that I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the details until News Corp‘s CEO, Rupert Murdoch appeared before parliament in London the other day. Acknowledging that he was “shocked, appalled, and ashamed” by the tumult engulfing his global media empire and which casts a pall over Scotland Yard, among other institutions, a chastened Murdoch said, “This is the most humble day of my life.”
Fair enough. If he had stopped there, it would have been an understandably restrained but contrite admission of responsibility. However, with cameras across the world trained on his appearance, he went in the other direction, making one of the most startling statements I’ve ever known a CEO to utter in public:
- Question: “Mr Murdoch, do you accept that ultimately you are responsible for this whole fiasco?”
- Rupert Murdoch: “No.”
Really? Wow … just wow!
Murdoch went on to hold as responsible “The people that I trusted to run it [the newspaper], and then maybe the people they trusted.”
This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to hear from leaders — i.e., “there was a breakdown in the chain of command, and ultimately I hold myself fully responsible.” While Murdoch’s lack of personal accountability is jarring, the implications are even more bewildering. That is, one could interpret from his statement the view that any leader or manager at any level isn’t responsible for the actions of those below them in the chain of command. Given that no manager can truly accomplish much of anything on their own, what are they accountable for if not the performance of everyone under them in their organization?
I have never worked at News Corp, and I don’t know anyone who does, so I can’t speak to their corporate culture or values (except as it plays out in the above dialogue). Thus, I can’t forecast what impact this view on accountability (or lack thereof) might have in that organization. I do believe, though, that such a perspective would have a devastating effect on the management culture and morale — to say nothing of the HR environment — in most organizations. Simply put, all but the least cynical could easily ask, “If the boss isn’t accountable, then why should I be accountable?” If such thinking takes hold, you wouldn’t ordinarily expect it to be long before a “funeral” was held for employee morale … or for the organization itself.
As regular readers of this space are aware, I try very hard to take a hopeful, positive approach to most organizational issues. In this case, the best I can muster is a heavy sigh … and a word of thanks that the leaders of most of our organizations don’t think the same as Mr. Murdoch.
Thank goodness for that.
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Have you ever worked in an organization where the leaders’ public values were at odds with your own and most employees? How did you cope — and how did you help others coope? What effect did it have on morale, productivity, and the ultimate success of the firm? And in the end, was there anything you could do but choose to leave?