Can a CEO ever be “not responsible” for what happens?

It was a bizarre spectacle: Rupert Murdoch appearing before a UK Parliament committee, attempting to dodge any personal responsibility for or knowledge of what appears to be a fairly pervasive practice of cell phone hacking by his flagship news organization. It is hard to imagine that the practice of phone hacking was a secret in the newsroom or—given the resignation of top execs or aides to Murdoch—in the executive conference room.

As much as it may be hard to imagine a parallel to this in most businesses, I see it happen a lot at least on more internal issues, especially involving questionable or flat-out bad behavior or practices. If and when you as an organizational leader fails to act on such issues when most below you know they exist, it leaves people with three choices in assessing your leadership, none of them pleasant:

1. Ignorance. You just don’t know it is going on, either because you are being played or shielded by your aides, or you are simply out of touch with the real working of your organization. Most people can accept this for a while, but after a while you get labeled as “clueless.”

2. Incompetence.  You are aware of the issue, but don’t know how (or are terribly conflicted) in how to deal with it. People start to lose confidence.

3. Indifference.  You are aware of the issue, could deal with it, but choose not to address it. This is the most devastating to culture and any sense of moral certainty. People start to lose their trust in you.

Lousy choices, but they are the choices you leave with people when an issue is neglected or ignored for too long. Decent people in leadership recoil from such a list, saying “That’s not me!” In most cases, that is true, but you are measured by your actions (or lack thereof). It does little good — and is hardly emotionally satisfying — to accept responsibility after the fact in a failure. Leadership is taking responsibility before the fact.

How? In my coaching, I suggest three things that any organization leader can do to avoid the trap. It requires getting out and engaging in a genuine, open dialogue with employees, other than your regular aides or direct reports, centered around three key questions:

1. What do I need to know? No, you can’t know everything, but are you actively seeking out what you need to know? Sure,  you will have a chronic griper now and then abuse the invite, and others may be wary of opening up until there is a track record of you acting and protecting against reprisal. Still, good people will step forward, and often give you invaluable insights into the realities of your organization’s culture and operations.

2. What would you want me to do? It is not giving up any of your stature as a leader to seek input on what actions are needed — quite the opposite. It not only can give you a sense of what actions would effect a result, it also gives employees a much greater sense of the considerations you face in making a decision.

3. What do you hope I care about? This is the most important, because it helps ensure your moral leadership is aligned with the expectations of employees for the culture of the business. People will follow a leader over a cliff at least once (!) if they believe your values are their values, and are what informs your decisions.


About paulheagen

I am an executive coach, advisor and confidant who helps leaders better understand, refresh or redirect their purpose in their business and personal lives. Over my 35-year career as a corporate executive, communications consultant and trusted advisor, I have guided executives through “defining moments” – those unique times when the decisions they make, the words they speak, and the qualities they exhibit can influence not only the destiny of their organization but also their own lives and careers. When it comes to my clients and my life work, I am ferociously passionate and restlessly inquisitive about uncovering the unique dreams, vision and purpose that lead to exceptional leadership.
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