Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Has Leadership lost all Accountability?

I’ve just finished reading Chapter 14 of William Tate’s book “The Search for Leadership – An Organisational Perspective”. As the phone hacking scandal at News of the World was exposed and continues to explode across all forms of media, my timing couldn’t have been better. You see Chapter 14 focuses on Leadership and Accountability and as more and more details come out about News of the World and News International the more William Tate’s writings make sense.

He starts Chapter 14 by attempting to define ‘accountability’ and is quick to point out that:

“While accountability ought to be a key factor in the management of any organisation, in practice it is unimaginatively conceived, poorly understood, relatively neglected and badly executed.”

He goes on to say that the familiar things we all associate with accountability, ie: lists of principle accountabilities and reporting lines, actually don’t contribute much to improving leadership effectiveness within an organisation. Why? Because those things are not an adequate means of holding senior people to account before a disaster strikes.

What’s struck me most about all this are the parallels between what I’ve read against the management and leadership of what continues to unfold at News of the World, News International and quite possibly within the wider global-reaching News Corp organisation. Other than shutting down an old and widely read English newspaper in one foul swoop, what is the actual process through which News Corp will hold News International and its executive(s) to account? Will it continue to hold its business units to account through this same process going forward? Does it even have a process? Regardless of whether a process exists or not, where have those most basic human behaviours of morality, ethical work practices, decency and sense of doing the right thing gone?

But these questions are not isolated to News Corp. They’re questions that can be asked of all organisations whether small, medium, or large multi-national corporations. Regardless of our role we’ve all, at one time or other, experienced the manager or senior executive who, to those observing or on the receiving end of their leadership, fails to be held accountable for their actions (or lack of). What on earth has to happen before someone is held accountable? Through these experiences we can have empathy for what those who have lost their jobs at News of the World have been thinking.

Company owners, executives and HR people will do well to look beyond this latest leadership scandal and consider whether they have a process in place for holding senior managers to account. As William Tate says and I paraphrase, “one that runs continuously as part of their company’s ongoing performance management framework”. Even portfolio, programme and project managers need to look closely at how they view and challenge accountability in their areas of responsibility.

Someone on Twitter recently shared a quote by Alfred A. Montapert, American motivational author famous for The Supreme Philosophy of Man, that said “All lasting business is built on friendship”. I don’t really agree and would stick my neck out to say others in business today may not either. You can be friendly but friendship suggests something more. For business to be lasting it must have the confidence and belief of the people it serves and the employees it hires, with integrity and trust at its core. Without that leadership roles are open to abuse and friendship can muddy the processes necessary to ensure proper and full accountability exists. Is this what we're seeing manifest itself within News Corp?

While there’ll always be scoundrels and scandalous behaviour in business there are changes that can be made to improve not only individual leadership but also that necessary to make an organisation better led. Look at the system itself not just the people within it and if you don’t have William Tate’s book, buy it.

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