Accountability in the Headlines – Public Governance is About the Culture the Leadership Creates

by Hank Boerner

The headlines and news broadcasts over the past few days are titillating and I think, a window into certain aspects of our culture of today. As well as insights into public governance and political management styles. All of which are relevant to the people of the great state of New Jersey (my family’s ancestral home), and way, way beyond, relevant to the people of the nation as the central player in the drama is a front runner for the presidential nomination.

First we have the spectacle of a popular governor, recently re-elected by handsome margins, who has done great things for this state, and was an effective leader in responding to the crisis of Superstorm Sandy, holding a very long (2 hours) press conference to state how sad and sorry and disappointed he was. That is, that members of his staff and a key appointee inconvenienced tens of thousands and probably posed a threat to human safety with their behind-the-scenes actions.

The central figure of the crisis is Governor Chris Christie, who is considered a front runner in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes on the Republican ticket.  He is well-known as being outspoken and not afraid to get in your face if you and he disagree.  Or if he thinks you are stupid.  And ask stupid questions (in his view). And in all of this he is not a bully, he protests.

The New York Times in the aftermath of the immediate September traffic crisis created by his trusted colleagues — but before the revelations in the headlines — published a story (half news, half commentary) about the governor’s record of bullying and political payback in recent years.

Then, shortly after the report the reputation crisis was on and being widely reported by other media — and subsequently detailed by release of 2,000 pages of documents this past week.  At the center of the critical event was the governor’s deputy chief of staff and his appointee to the bi-state Port of New York and New Jersey Authority.  Roads leading to busiest bridge crossing in the USA – the George Washington Bridge — were ordered closed. This is also a vital link (Route 80, Route 95) in the Interstate Highway System.

This four-day action late last year was said to be in retribution for the mayor of the town (Fort Lee) at the foot of the bridge for having backed the governor’s Democratic opponent (and for not backing Governor Christie).in the November race.  Which, political pundits point out, was to be viewed as a stepping stone toward success in 2016 as the presidential nominee of the Republican party. (Of course, not all Republicans agree with that assessment.)

Questions hang in the air — what were the aides thinking?  Were they trying to please the governor that they served?  Was this “payback” mode something that is quietly condoned or taken for granted in the administration – whether the governor knows about the details or not?  I’ve been there – i have worked for a powerful governor and probable presidential candidate and saw numerous instances of people doing things in his name. A great invoking, I called it.  “The governor wants…” works miracles at times. I know – I did it myself. Worked wonders, I remember, when people attempted to put obstacles in the way of plans.  But it’s high-risk game, too.  I became more careful as time went on about what would say the Great Man “wanted.”

Of course, if things go wrong there is also the plausible denial of the leader that can be employed.  Remember President Richard Nixon and the Watergate crisis?  President Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Gate crisis (arms traded by the USA, the Great Satan, to Iran, but the all-powerful leader of the free world did not know what was going on?).

In October 2010 with my fellow author, Mark W. Sickles, we published a guide for managers — Strategic Governance – Enabling Financial, Environmental, and Social Sustainability.  This was a book designed for the private sector but there are lessons as well for the public sector.  We wrote:  “The universal purpose of [corporate] governance is to integrate ethical, professional and industry values and standards into firm-level cultures that enable winning strategies, manage risk, meet the needs of the firm’s stakeholders, and fulfill responsibility for a sustainable world.”

We could substitute “firm” with “the public office or agency,” and corporate governance with public governance.  And stakeholders…that includes everyone involved in the public sector and its processes.

What values and standards, then, are appropriate for the public sector?  Much of the same – ethical behavior, professional values, managing (and avoiding) risk, meeting the needs of the people you serve…all are applicable.  So – in my view, as we wrote throughout the book, culture is central to success or failure in organizations, public or private or social sector..

Culture is the heart of effective governance.  Professor Mervyn King, former head of the Global Reporting Initiative and a prominent banker and business leader in his native South Africa, observed that organization are “incapicitated people” requiring leaders to act as their “hearts, minds and souls.” Think of the leader as the brain and the spinal cord of the enttity, which then is connected and extends to all of the nerve endings, which are connected to every cell of the organism.  What values and standards are instilled by the brain extends then to every part of the organization from the brain to the nerve endings..

That is in effect how institutional culture is shaped and instilled.  Mark and I shared this thought: The governance system is the network of interdependent components working together to achieve the stated goals of the whole [organization].

What are the lessons coming out of the dramatic dust-up in New Jersey?  We will learn more about the setting (the culture) in which senior colleagues of the highest elected official in the state conducted their affairs.  The thought is inspiration for the deed, someone observed. What were they thinking (those involved in the “stupid” affair, as the governor himself characterized). Who were they trying to please?  What gave them the idea that disrupting lives, threatening public safety, and causing in the end great embarrassment was a pretty nifty idea at the start?

At the start…I think we begin with culture…and from there we move to setting, tone, hatching ideas and putting them into action. Guided by culture. And then, at times, part of the culture can be to cover up and stone wall the media…and deny all.  And in the end…it is all about…the culture.

And setting the culture begins with the leadership and tone set at the top.  So..what leadership lessons can we draw from the New Jersey crisis?  (For one thing, bullying or not, tone really matters!)  The best leaders know this and are very careful about the tone they set. Others? Well, we see those results regularly in the headlines.

Your thoughts on this?

What’s Going Wrong in the Culture? Or is it Business-as-Usual and We Are Just Paying Closer Attention in the Era of 24/7 News?

by Hank Boerner

This is a busy week for journalists and commentators as personal crisis piles on crisis and new juicy details are revealed. As a long-time issue and crisis manager, for me the stories jump off the page (print and digital) and screen.  I think about the cultural underpinnings of the crisis du jour.   Lots more lessons to be learned here.

As a crisis manager, I observed over time that the culture that was established — the foundational, operating environment with its generally accepted practices — was a key determinant in what happened (what went wrong), what could go right in the response and restoration phase, and in the behavior of those involved, from leadership to rank and file. The dominant culture was the guide, especially for better-managed organizations, for the start of recovery and restoration (and in contrast, for ruination and agony in the worst cases).

In this global operating environment, there are also cultural norms and important differences that are determinants in the outcome of these affairs as well. Consider the case of the expelled diplomat from India, who was arrested and strip searched in New York City, and then invited to go back home.  Where she was welcomed and treated to better treatment than in the USA.

The norms in the USA  we can generally agree are the expectations of reasonable (“fair”) pay, limited work hours, fair treatment for those in our employ.  The government may be watching, or the media may pounce.  Reputations can be shredded quickly.

New York City-based Indian consul Devyani Khobragade brought a maid into the USA and (it is alleged and reported by media) forced her to work 100 hours weekly, limited her breaks, and prevented the unhappy worker from leaving the USA to return home (by withholding her passport). The New York Times account on January ii pointed out that in India, as she returned to her homeland, there was little outrage about the abuse of the maid.  People interviewed in India were more upset about the treatment of the diplomat (who was briefly jailed).  And about the way the USA – more puritanical in many ways from other countries – mattered more. Different norms, different cultures. Different outcomes.  Over time the two cultures involved (USA, India) may resolve differences r this may become a point of great contention.

And in France – the president, Francoise Hollande, is reported by Closer magazine to be having an affair with an actress 18 years his younger. (Political power itself is an aphrodisiac.) These revelations do not shock the citizens of France or its media.  “Public moralizing,” noted the USA’s Times, does not occur in France as in the USA. (Just ask Gary Hart or John Edwards, both of whom had presidential hopes dashed on such revelations. Remember the photo ops on the back of the yacht, Monkey Business? Or think about the public and private maneuvering of President Bill Clinton, who struggled to be the Comeback Kid after allegations and admissions of such behavior).

Personal privacy matters much more to the French than the personal high jinks adventures of its elected leaders. Yes, privacy matters in the USA, too, but not in terms of certain personal behaviors of those in public office or other high places (such as corporate CEOs like Mark Hurd of HP.)  In cases like these, for American media, privacy is out the window (the “public figure” line of defense) and targets are fair game. And a shot in the arm for readership, listenership or viewership at the peak. (Sure, attention wanes quickly in this era of 5 minutes of public fame and then it is on to the next big crisis story.)

Much of the coverage can be unfair or even untrue. Yes, we expect good behavior by our leaders and look to them for inspiration and guidance.  But our leaders are human, and so by definition not perfect. And the cultural setting is important (USA vs France, for example). And while the American leader is being taken down or taken apart, bad things can happen. (We are told by some authors that while President Clinton was dealing with the aftermath of dalliances, he took his eye off the ball and let Osama bin Laden get away from his African hideout before the September 11, 2001 attacks.)

So – in our culture, shaped by Puritan thinking 300 years ago and ever since, and our obsession with personal behaviors of leaders, do we place too much emphasis on the dalliances of our leaders?  Are all their private moments our public business?

While the general agreement is that they should be accountable for their behavior (it goes with the office), I also think about what the famed social philosopher and American editor, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) had to say about this: “There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness.  To bring him down to the miserable level of ‘good men,’ that is, stupid, cowardly, and chronically unhappy men.”  Wow – that sounds like some of the talking heads on cable weighing in our our latest personal crises.

Stay Tuned – the next personal reputation crisis is cooking out there, even for the most successful of our leaders.  Just ask Governor Eliot Spitzer.  Or Congressman Anthony Weiner. Yes, they brought in on themselves. But they know first hand about the dreaded media call – Gotcha!  Bad things follow. And we will all tune in, won’t we!

What do you think?