Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A continuing display of weak leadership

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.


J said...

Well put.

I completely agree with you. This president does not want to take responsibility. All he has done is blame. And I voted for him ! Personally, I think he’s a great orator and a horrible leader. He is all talk and no action or follow through.

Anonymous said...

I agree Paul. I was thinking the exact same thing during his talk today.

akhan13 said...

I agree with you to an extent. I too am sick of hearing words not followed by action, but private sector accountability and political admission of fault are two different things. I think posting examples of politicians taking the blame for their actions (which rarely happens because it is either against for them or their parties, the latter of which is still a concern for the President) would be a better comparison. Also, in the debates Obama took responsibility for Benghazi to defend his Secretary of State, but the words were not backed by a true 'taking of responsibility'.

Anonymous said...

While I enjoy your writings on healthcare, I couldn't disagree with you more on this. The whole narrative that "Obama is all talk is and no action" is pretty tired and falls down when you take a brief moment to look at his accomplishments.

The country as organization and the president as CEO also fails on a number of fundamental levels. Who are the customers? The investors? The board? What is the specific product or service that it provides? What market does the country's product or service exist in? Who are the country's employees? How do you hire or fire them?

Lastly, there are very good presidents who came into office "having never really run an organization of size and complexity". Lincoln immediately comes to mind. While this prior experience may or may not be helpful (I am not aware of any data that suggest that running a big organization affords any benefit to presidents), I think it is the wrong metaphor and you are off point here. As I said earlier, really enjoy the blog otherwise.

Paul Levy said...

Thank you very much. Please note that I was referring to his leadership of the Executive Department, where he actually is more akin to a CEO and where he actually has employees. It is in this forum that his public approach transmits weakness rather than effectiveness. I think it does have something to do with the fact that he has little experience as a leader of an organization, but maybe it is just characterological. There are many other aspects of his job about which I have not commented.

Although this blog is about health care, I have raised the leadership issue often because many of the aspects of leadership we see in other fields offer lessons for health care, a vice versa.

David Joyce MD said...

Leadership? Are we really going to accept that the IRS issue is one of a couple of rogue employees going of on some self proclaimed political agenda. Not likely. What higher up in the IRS would put their priceless bureaucratic life in jeopardy to satisfy their own political agenda, also not likely. I like to "Keep it real" and reality says this was pressure from the executive branch to play hardball Chicago politics. Obama, good leadership for a bad cause, not uncommon in politics.

beverly said...

David, even if Obama did do it on purpose (which even I am not cynical enough to believe, mainly because of the risk of what just happened), his reaction as Paul depicted is still an example of bad leadership - in fact it makes it even worse since he then is throwing others to the wolves for his failure. The point stands.

beverly rogers, M.D.

Anonymous said...

Let me begin by saying I want Obamacare to succeed. I think the experiment started in the commonwealth has the potential to finally bring healthcare cost under control if managed properly.

But the IRS scandal is troubling on a two levels, 1) competence, and possibly 2) culpability

Without much more inquiry and evidence it is hard to evaluate executive culpability, meaning misuse of power. But as Paul said there is or should be responsibility, since Obama manages the executive branch.

One thing worth noting on culpability.

Sarah Hall Ingram, the IRS official in charge of the tax exempt division (the area of the scandal), has since received a promotion. She is now charged with organizing and managing the IRS functions for Obamacare.

Her new position is obviously important for the administration. It is Obama's legacy. What did she do that singled her out for promotion?

AP said...

While I appreciate the premise of the buck stops here argument, it is not a fair comparison between private sector and political governance. If Paul Wiles had an opponent group who would start demanding his resignation or impeachment basically using his own speech against him, whether he would have taken such accountability in such a public way is anyone's guess.

John Hunter said...

Yes people say things like “no tolerance” when they mean I don't actively encourage it. Of course you tolerate it, it is happening a lot, for years. You might not like it but you tolerate it.

I often think "that is unacceptable" but I realize no it is acceptable. I really don't like it. But obviously lots of people created and maintain a system that continually produces those results. That is the what you call evidence that it is acceptable. Acceptence doesn't mean active supporting it.