When leaders fail, everyone loses

When widespread cover-ups come to light, as in the Post Office, they show a work culture that is not functioning, and the blame lies with the leaders.

Women on Boards


When something significant is going wrong, someone always knows the truth.  The Post Office scandal in the UK is the most topical example where many senior people knew what was going on, but chose to collude while over 900 sub-postmasters were falsely prosecuted for theftfalse accounting and fraud.

When a Boeing 737 Max recently lost its plug door mid-air, this was on the back of two crashes involving 346 fatalities in the last six years. These crashes primarily occurred because an automated system known as MCAS, designed to prevent the plane from stalling, appeared to malfunction, and Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked together to manipulate the recertification of the aircraft. “The tragic crashes … exposed fraudulent and deceptive conduct by employees of one of the world’s leading commercial airplane manufacturers,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General David P. Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 Max airplane and engaging … to cover up their deception.”

In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in 448 U.S. newspapers. It was the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage sales. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.

Every human makes mistakes – we are fallible. But when businesses as a whole cultivate a toxic culture of cover-ups or fail to learn from their mistakes, the real responsibility always lies with the top; one function of leadership is the culture you create.  Can cover-ups and lying by Volkswagen officials who intentionally programmed around half a million diesel vehicles with defeat devices to provide false readings during emissions testing, be viewed as mistakes? There are numerous warning signs and red flags of poor leadership and a toxic culture when individuals fail to take responsibility for mistakes and terrible decisions and instead resort to concealment.

Not knowing is a guilty offence for leaders. The ostrich effect of not facing up to bad news or deliberately ignoring it means sticking our heads in the sand rather than asking questions, listening and choosing the path of integrity.

Wilful blindness is dangerous. Why do we ignore the obvious? Because it is so tempting to believe what you want to believe, and as Upton Sinclair, the American novelist said: “It’s very hard to get a man to believe if his job depends on not believing”. The BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill was made worse because on the rig they did not believe what the system was telling them, and the indicators were then misinterpreted. By contrast at the start of the Post Office Scandal, people blindly believed in the system, not common sense or the mounting evidence in front of them.

Stubborn immovability is a massive barrier to enabling any real change. The mistakes of government and business delegations, as well as NGOs in the recent COP28, who are standing idly and knowingly by as we continue to comprehensively fail to protect the average global temperature increase below 1.5°C by the end of the century will be nothing short of catastrophic.  Neither goodwill nor good intentions will bring about the changes that are crucially needed via immediate action.

Having tunnel vision is harmful. I was once facilitating for the C-suite of a well-known organisation when one department head revealed that based on his research the chance of success of the project they were working on was zero per cent. Without hesitation, someone in the group ignored this intervention and carried on making their point. I had to stop the meeting and remind everyone of what they had just heard, but were choosing to ignore because somehow it was being seen as an inconvenient diversion.

A culture of fear. If the culture of the organisation makes you fear breaking the silence and getting in trouble and losing your job then it is very difficult to be a whistleblower. So often they are considered a threat to the system. I am often asked what is the best response to an employee making a mistake. Don’t shoot the messenger. At the most basic level instead, thank them for coming forward, and ask them what needs to be done now and what can be learnt to prevent it from happening again. The moment you get into a punitive mindset you will prevent people from coming forward with the truth and this strangles the system.

Refusal to be open and transparent. In one company that I worked with, the CEO hid the truth of the situation from their investors and they lost about £900 million.  The investors weren’t innocent in this either because they knew things weren’t going well and appeared to choose to ignore the signals. In industries where safety is paramount such as oil and gas or nuclear, there is no rank when it comes to whistleblowing. They have found that the way to improve safety is to make it safe for people to speak up when they see something that is wrong or unsafe.  When you have systems that punish contraventions then what you tend to have is people hiding issues.  Without transparency, you can’t reduce the chance of things going wrong again.

Being institutionalised.  In organisations that are entirely made up of like-minded people there is a real potential for a head-nodding agreement which results in a group-think mentality, echo chambers where decisions are made without critical evaluation, blind spots, resistance to change and limited problem-solving all of which will affect the business’ growth, innovation and culture.

Burnout.  Overworking and information overload add to the problem because we are more likely to make mistakes. It then gets to a point when we are signed off and others have to pick up the pieces thereby adding to their workloads which breeds resentment. Burnout is avoidable and is a clear indicator of a poor culture.

*Thom Dennis from www.serenityinleadership.com is a certified facilitator, change agent, leadership and CQ specialist, and professional speaker.

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