Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Own It

Q: As oil surges into Gulf of Mexico for the fourth week, BP's leader steadfastly refuses to take the blame for the collapse of a well. CEO Tony Hayward blames one of its suppliers, and says he's "absolutely confident that we can bounce back." It's not only a PR battle, but one for the ecology and economy of an entire region. What are Hayward's mistakes, and if you were in his shoes, what would you do differently? How do you forge success from disaster?

There they go again. Corporate executives obfuscating, pointing fingers, stonewalling, denying their company's responsibility for a catastrophe. Toyota gladly relinquishes headlines to British Petroleum. BP's executives now try to ooze their way out of the oily mess in the Gulf of Mexico.

Corporate executives seem to be an especially obtuse group when it comes to learning from the communications mistakes of others. Perhaps that's because they are more inclined to listen to the advice of their lawyers who, like counsel on the scene of a traffic accident, tell their clients to never, ever, admit responsibility -- even when it's clear who ran the red light.

A blown-out oil well a mile below the surface is hardly a fender bender. Eleven human lives were extinguished in this accident, a fact that seems to have faded from public consciousness. The environmental disaster grows ominously each day, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen along the Gulf Coast while poisoning an untold number of birds, fish and other wildlife. News of giant underwater plumes of oil sounds like a sci-fi horror but illustrates the all-too-tragic long-term effects of this disaster.

Take responsibility, tell the truth, have the courage to admit realization of the potential consequences: These are all standard tactics for effective, mature corporate leadership in the face of disasters. Unfortunately, we see too few examples of such courageous leadership. Too often, the blame game compounds the tragedy.

A company's reputation for integrity and truthfulness can be blown apart overnight, but a corporate culture of cutting corners and repressing truth often grows slowly and insidiously. As the investigation continues into the oil spill, just like in the Massey coal mine explosion, reports emerge of less-than-vigorous regulatory inspections and efforts to bypass safety rules. What may seem like minor hassles in routine management life get magnified into insidious corporate conduct once catastrophes happen.

On a college campus, arguably a much more benign environment than undersea wells or deep coal mines, the bucolic bright day can turn ugly in an instant -- consider the shootings at Virginia Tech. From that tragedy and others, we university presidents learned, once again, that there can be no substitute for rigorous and continuous attention to the potential for harm, and that emergency plans must be exercised continuously.

Most of all, my long experience on a university campus has taught me this: When bad things happen, there is no substitute for telling the truth, telling it again, telling it often and as completely as possible.

Successful leadership, especially in the face of disaster, must be courageous enough to own the ugliest of facts; legal prudence sometimes must bow to the fundamental moral imperative of taking responsibility for what has gone wrong. The legal part will work itself out correctly in the long run, but the moral harm of dissembling can be permanent.

Courts of law eventually determine who's liable; but the court of public opinion can tell who's lying or shirking responsibility. BP does neither itself nor the public it serves any favors by pointing fingers. Before it can recover its reputation from this catastrophe, BP must own it.

By Patricia McGuire  |  May 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Comeback attempts Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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HOW INTERESTING. I HAVE SEARCHED THIS ARTICLE SEVERAL TIMES AND FAIL TO FIND ANY MENTION OF OUR GREAT LEADER. EACH TIME SOMETHING HAPPENS OBUMA HAS LIED HIS WAY OUT OF IT OR BLAMED IT ON GEORGE BUSH. EVEN HIS BEST BUDDY "THE GOOD REVEREND" WROTE RECENTLY THAT OBUMA THREW HIM UNDER THE BUS.
IF YOU WRITE AN ARTICL THAT HAS TO DO WITH TAKING THE BLAME , AT LEAST HAVE THE COURAGE TO INCLUDE OBUMA.

Posted by: MALBENNET | May 24, 2010 7:44 PM
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So if I buy a car from any car company and knowing hit some one. I can blame the car company from letting me buy the car? Thats awesome!! Let me use that defense in court?

rolls eye's.

Posted by: Longbowan | May 24, 2010 2:02 PM
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Owning your mistakes.

I thought this article was going to be advice for Barack Hussein Obama. But I guess this is the Washington Post.

Barack Obama is a National DISGRACE.

Posted by: ignoranceisbliss | May 24, 2010 12:47 PM
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