Watching Seinfeld tonight Elaine was bemoaning the fact that she wasn’t seen as responsible enough to babysit a friend’s child. “Who wants to be responsible” responded Jerry Seinfeld “Whenever anything goes wrong the first thing they ask is who is responsible”.
It’s a question that has exercised the mind of the auditor general: why did four Defence Force officers falsely claim allowances while on secondment to the UN. Listening to interviews on the radio on the way to my run this evening I heard “they’ve been disciplined”, “won’t happen again” and “they only claimed what they were entitled to remember” several times. What I didn’t hear was mention of culture and values that the auditor general had identified as underlying causes of the falsities.
At times of crisis, the leaders of any organisation will need to adopt a command and control leadership style, where directions are given and acted upon without question. The Defence business while on operations surely fits into this camp. But what about the rest of the time? Can the culture switch as required or is there just one culture?
We get glimpses of an organisation’s culture through stuff that pops out externally – staff retention, how problems are dealt with, choices people make about where to work and statements from leaders are the sorts of things where we can pick up clues. So when its said that the culture and values caused the environment that gave rise to the false claims what culture are we talking about? Is this the culture that requires obedience to superior officers in all circumstances, even when illegal?
On the one hand you need to have officers able to unquestioningly respond to orders. But outside of operations you need to have a culture that allows questioning, coaching and responsibility for ones own actions. Sounds like a big challenge.
So when I listened to the radio tonight I heard all the things that one might expect with the organisation top-down rule book approach to “make things happen”. “I will ensure that it doesn’t happen again”. That’s a fine aim, but you won’t if you don’t change the culture. And you won’t change the culture by doing treating the problem with the same culture that caused it. That dreadful defensiveness that uses rules and structures to avoid the potential embarrassment of having to explore the root causes that the auditor general identified.
So who is responsible? Is that even the right question? I believe that in leadership discovery we need to start with self. You won’t be acting without integrity and blind unquestioning if you’re authentic. But if your leadership paridigm is about finding new ways to control and strategise then you’re not even scratching the surface – you’re still on the command and control, but with fancy words.
Leadership discovery of authenticity. It’s the best defence against a culture that is not right, and the most sustainable way to embed real change.
That’s got a lot of force to it I reckon.