Sunday, September 27, 2015

Will no one rid me of this priest?

As we consider the leadership failures that led to the current debacle at Volkswagen, we can take a lesson from English history.

Henry II, facing a disagreement with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett in 1164, is reported to have shouted out in frustration, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights heard what Henry had shouted and interpreted it to mean that the king wanted Beckett dead. They rode to Canterbury and did the deed.

This story exemplifies the term myrmidon. From this source, we get the following definition: "A loyal follower; especially: a subordinate who executes orders unquestioningly or unscrupulously."

One of the dangers for a CEO is the tendency for your subordinates to take what you say and execute it to a degree you never intended.


Now, let's take a quick look at the VW story, courtesy of the New York Times:

Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen’s chief executive, took the stage four years ago at the automaker’s new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and outlined a bold strategy. The company, he said, was in the midst of a plan to more than triple its sales in the United States in just a decade — setting it on a course to sweep by Toyota to become the world’s largest automaker.

“By 2018, we want to take our group to the very top of the global car industry,” he told the two United States senators, the governor of Tennessee and the other dignitaries gathered for the opening of Volkswagen’s first American factory in decades.

One way Volkswagen aimed to achieve its lofty goal was by betting on diesel-powered cars — instead of hybrid-electric vehicles like the Toyota Prius — promising high mileage and low emissions without sacrificing performance. 

The determination by Mr. Winterkorn, the company’s hard-charging chief executive, to surpass Toyota put enormous strain on his managers to deliver growth in America.

Volkswagen officials now state that Mr. Wintrerkorn knew nothing of the regulatory cheating that his engineers had designed into the company's engines.  Some are skeptical:

“For something of this magnitude, one would expect that the CEO would know, and if he doesn’t know, then he’s willfully ignorant,” said Jeffrey A. Thinnes, a former Daimler executive who works as a consultant for European companies on compliance and ethics issues.

We may never know.  But what we can be sure of is that the myrmidons at VW thought they were carrying out the intent of the CEO.

6 comments:

Isam Osman said...

From Facebook:

I think you are being politically correct here, Paul. I agree it's leadership gone wrong, but I am not convinced that the CEO's declared aspirations to double sales in 4 yrs is directly causal to the engineers implanting the defeat software. This was such a blatantly illegal act that those who perpetrated it must have known they were acting fraudulently. They must have had the nod from higher up the organisation to do something like this. Hence I think there is more credence in that the CEO knew and maybe even sanctioned it.

nonlocal MD said...

Thank you for taking up this important topic. You point is an important one. The event is certainly not an isolated one-off, and may hold lessons for leaders elsewhere. The fact that it occurred in Germany, of all places (i.e. not the U.S., and in the economic leader of Europe) is also significant. Usually these scandals are found to have evolved with many twists and turns; hopefully there will be a transparent investigation from which we can all learn.

Bob said...

I'm reading Evan Thomas' new book on Nixon, and around Watergate, that's exactly what was happening. He demanded intel, and the myrmidons set out to get it for him. He was responsible for the climate.

Howard Mann said...

Paul... I always enjoy and find your posts enlightening and useful. This one particularly strikes a chord, being a direct descendent of the Tracy (de Traci) family of England, the fascinating story of the four knights who assassinated Thomas a Becket for King Henry II has, over the years, instilled a deep desire in me to consciously act in the opposite direction, i.e. loyalty to ethics rather than to an authority or person. Over the years in my career, I have been faced several times in healthcare with making the decision to try to ground myself in doing the right thing or serving the "right" person. While my choices haven't always served me well, politically, overall it has served me and those I work with and those I serve, best. That doesn't mean that I haven't made mistakes along the way, but I hope I have learned from them.

Thank you for this cautionary tale.

Howard (Tracy) Mann

Paul Levy said...

Wow. I'm sure we all have somebody in our family history who offers a similar lesson, but most of us do not have it so well documented!

Thanks so much for sharing this.

Paul Levy said...


Here's what might be another fascinating example from the NHS:

The chief executive of The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation Trust has resigned with immediate effect.

The trust declined to give any reason for Wendy Farrington Chadd’s resignation.

Monitor has been investigating the trust since June over long waiting times for its referral to treatment patients. The investigation is ongoing.

An independent review by consultancy Deloitte, commissioned by the trust and published in August, found that hundreds of patients had been excluded from the trust’s waiting list on a monthly basis for 14 months.

This had the effect of boosting the trust’s average monthly performance against the 92 per cent incomplete target from 85 per cent, which included the excluded patients, to slightly over 92 per cent.

http://www.hsj.co.uk/hsj-local/acute-trusts/the-robert-jones-and-agnes-hunt-orthopaedic-hospital-nhs-foundation-trust/chief-executive-of-specialist-trust-resigns/5090678.article#.