When leaders talk tough, followers will take that as a license to act tough.
During the 1992 presidential campaign Bill Clinton promised that if elected President he would repeal the law that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving in the military. As president, Clinton soon discovered it was easier to make that promise, than to fulfill it. Unable to muster enough political support to repeal the law, Clinton came up with a squishy alternative called, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Clinton ordered the Department of Defense to issue a directive that prohibited the military from asking (or investigating) the sexual preferences of military personnel. The directive also barred gays and lesbians in the military from openly expressing their sexual preference. Though the compromise fully pleased nobody, it served its purpose until 2011 when the law barring gays and lesbians from service in the military was repealed.
While the compromise of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may have seemed novel and creative, it was simply an extension of how government and businesses have long dealt with controversial issues, especially when those issues generate actions so shady that, if they became public, they would create public rancor and disapproval.
The Question Is, “Is it Plausible?”
In government this stratagem is employed so often it even has a name: “plausible denial.” Whenever a government leader wants to take an action that might be unpopular or embarrassing (not to mention illegal) if exposed, an elaborate plan is concocted that would allow the act to go forward, without revealing the fingerprints of the leader. If something goes wrong, the leader can then feign outrage and indignation while claiming no knowledge of the act, let alone approval. The trick is to make the denial at least appear to be plausible. Once the nefarious activity has been exposed, the normal defensive action is to setup someone lower on the totem pole as a scapegoat. The usual mea culpa from the leader is that the selected scapegoat had “gone rogue” and acted without his authority or knowledge.
There are countless examples of this type of subterfuge in government, but the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals serve as good bookends. In Watergate everything was done to obscure the trail of knowledge and approval of scurrilous political skullduggery leading to President Nixon. Likewise, every effort was made to allow President Reagan to claim a “mistake” had been made, and in the next breath, “plausibly deny” any knowledge or approval of trading guns for Iranian hostages and funding the Contras to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua; both were activities that happened to be illegal.
Many at lower levels of power were sacrificed as rogues, losing their jobs or even going to jail for acting without the knowledge and authority of those at the top. Of course in these cases the fall guys were only doing what they felt had been directed or at least condoned by the leader; even if the specific actions were not spelled out. Nixon, of course, caught himself with his Oval Office recordings, but suffered an ignominious fall from grace for his fruitless coverup.
A Bridge Too Far?
Now we come to the latest incarnation of the “plausible denial” syndrome with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the scandal of “Bridgegate.” So long as you are willing to suspend the laws of credibility, it may be plausible for Christie to deny knowledge of the specific acts of his very top aides. However, it is impossible for Christie to deny the creation of an atmosphere and mentality that motivated the acts of political retribution carried out by his closest confidants. Christie’s public persona is to bluster, threaten, intimidate and bully opposition. Setting this example, why should he be surprised if his staff acted as it did?
Christie’s defense is that he did not ask and his staff did not tell him about their actions to block bridge traffic. Following the normal defensive pattern, this has allowed Christie to feign indignation, outrage and the hurt of personal betrayal when he “discovered” that his “most trusted” aides had stooped to such activity. A claim that, even if viewed in its most favorable light, is disingenuous. Christie has even postured himself as more of a victim than an instigator.
Such selfish, cowardly leadership is not limited to political leaders. The king-pins of business are just as adept, if not more so, at creating an environment that encourages less-than-ethical behavior in the name of an increased bottom line, while shielding themselves from accountability when disreputable actions are exposed.
Think back to just a few years ago when the abuses and downright fraud perpetrated by banks, mortgage companies, investment firms, hedge funds and insurance companies triggered the pain and suffering of the “Great Recession.” As the mess was being cleaned up, the frustration most often expressed by an indignant public was that the chiefs at the top of these companies got away virtually scot-free with little or no accountability, while those at lower levels lost their jobs and were often prosecuted. From Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, Citi Corp, AIG and all the other players in this bubble-game, the defense of the CEOs at the top was that they did not know this activity was taking place and certainly did not authorize or approve any of it.
Any one of these companies could serve as a star-studded example of the corporate use of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” method of plausible denial, but none better than AIG. Under the leadership of Hank Greenberg, AIG grew from a sleepy, backwater insurance company to become the world’s largest insurance enterprise. That is a tremendous accomplishment and Greenberg is due a great deal of credit. The problem is that the ruthless environment and the “do anything it takes” cold-blooded culture that built AIG also set in motion its failure. (That is, it would have failed if it had not been bailed out to the tune of $85 billion dollars by the U.S. government.)
Greenberg built a corporate culture that tied everything – promotion, compensation, bonus and survival – to only one thing – year-over-year growth. The mantra at AIG was you either produced year-over-year growth and kept your job or you didn’t and were gone. Greenberg claimed he never asked and was never told the specifics of the actions taken to achieve that growth. Thus, when underlings at AIG – seeking to please Greenberg and cement their own future in the company – took irrational risks that drove the company to the brink of insolvency, Greenberg was able to walk away with no accountability, claiming to be the victim of rogue operators. He denied any knowledge or approval of these actions and others paid the price for this subterfuge.
So what is the point and what can we learn from these shenanigans?
The most important responsibility and strongest power a leader has is to establish the culture and set the tone for the environment of the organization they lead. The success of an organization builds from the bottom, but it is the leader who – by words and actions – sets the parameters for the actions taken to achieve that success. The leader is responsible for the culture and environment that defines what is acceptable and what is not.
Certainly a leader – especially in a large organization – cannot be expected to be aware of and monitor all the actions of those in the organization, but the leader need not be cognizant of them to be in control. Not so long as the leader has effectively communicated and consistently enforced the desired culture and environment of the organization. The truth is that the leader should never be surprised by what they get from followers, because what they get is what they asked for. Followers want to please and be in good favor with the leader. And they literally do take their lead from the leader.
Take the case of Governor Christie. Even if (and it is a big “if”) he did not have explicit knowledge of his staff’s act of retribution against Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, Christie’s attitude was the cause and he should not be surprised by the effect. Christie’s bombastic, take-no-prisoners political attitude created the environment that encouraged his aides to go forward. You can just hear the aides talking, “Hey, here is a great idea. Let’s close down the lanes of traffic to the GW Bridge from Fort Lee. This will make Sokolich look bad and Christie will love it.” They did not have to tell Christie they were going to do, because he had already set the tone that told them it was okay to do it.
And the Moral of the Story …
A leader must understand and accept the responsibility for creating the culture and operational environment of the organization. Followers – interested in their own well-being – watch the leader for clues, indications and actions that signal what is expected and what will be acceptable behavior and what won’t be. If the leader is a bully, then chances are the culture will be a bulling culture. If the leader is willing to cut corners, it is likely that mentality will permeate within the organization.
For either good or bad, the standards of acceptable and unacceptable performance set by the leader are the standards others in the organization will follow. So much so that if these standards are violated, the culture will either self-correct the situation or bring the deviation to the attention of the leader.
When a leader says they are “shocked and surprised” by the actions of their followers, they are either lying or are clearly incompetent, because they fail to understand the essence of their power as a leader to set the tone and culture that, in and of itself manages the actions of the followers.