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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Falling back on the same old song

Q: In defending Craigslist against charges that it facilitates prostitution and casual sex and undermines the news business, founder Craig Newmark relies on an unwavering commitment to free expression, free markets and an open Internet. Is such an unwavering commitment to core principles the essence of leadership, or is leadership more about accommodating core principles to other social needs and values?

As BP's Tony "I want my life back" Hayward found out the hard way, an unwavering focus on a narrow collection of principles can have a leader pointing a gun at his own head.

Listen a bit more to what Hayward said and it's a little easier to hear what he was trying to say. "So there's no one who wants this thing done more than I do, and we are doing everything we can to contain the oil offshore, defend the shoreline and return people's lives to normal as fast as we can," he told reporters. But there were two mega-problems here. One was that his "want my life back" plea ranks with "heckuva a job, Brownie!" as one of the most 'unartful-in-a-crisis' statements in recent memory.

The other problem is that his argument about getting out of BP's way so it could get the job done totally missed the point. BP fumbled its response to the oil spill in failing to act aggressively enough to get the problem under control--and in failing to convince anyone that it was going to be able to do so. Leadership is, in part, about getting results. It's also about leaders' building trust and confidence in their ability to produce those results. The latter is often far more important--and more difficult--than the former.

On both counts, core values are critical. A leader needs a compass to guide the way through the uncertainty that always comes with tough decisions. Malcom X reminds us that "If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything." But falling back on the same answer for every question that comes up is the mark of a lazy leader doomed to fall and increasingly out of sync with every problem that pops up.

Good leaders know that they can't simply rely on "well, it worked the last time" to guide their way through tough new rapids. They need core values to get them started, but they also need a skillful hand in negotiating through the tough cross-currents where they're rarely lucky enough to face the same problem twice. That requires a reservoir of trust that comes in part from success, and in part from connecting each new puzzle with broader social values. Tony Hayward found that out the hard way, on both counts.

By Donald Kettl

 |  September 7, 2010; 8:35 AM ET
Category:  CEOs , Corporate leadership , Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Craigslist founder saw the writing on the wall | Next: Newmark fighting for free speech, upholding the law

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