The Buck Stops ... Where?

06 Jun 2008

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This is Mike Garrison, currently the lame duck president of West Virginia University -- lame duck because he has announced his resignation over a scandal involving the doctoring of records. From the AP article :

Though an independent panel found there was no evidence of Garrison's interference, it was on his watch last fall that WVU administrators added courses and grades to [the governor's daughter's] incomplete transcript, awarding her a 1998 executive master's business of administration degree she'd been claiming on her resume.

I don't have much of a reason for caring about this story. Trust me, my proximity to West Virginia is pure coincidence. Probably, I'm just interested because the dude's my own age (39), and I wonder if I would have handled it better than he did. Hell, I wonder whether my dog could have done a better job ... But, the story raises a few important business-philosophical questions:

1. To what extent should leaders accept responsibility for the actions of their subordinates?
2. How could Garrison have handled this situation better?

My own answers are admittedly offered in hindsight. But, for what they're worth:

1. Individuals need to bear the responsibility for their own actions. It is impossible for a leader (someone like Garrison, in charge of hundreds of faculty and thousands of students) to foretell the future or effectively monitor the behavior and actions of all those he oversees. However ...

2. He certainly could have handled the situation better by (1) acting immediately, decisively, openly, and professionally, (2) immediately firing those responsible, (3) immediately revoking the bogus degree, and (4) authoritatively communicating his decisions to his board, his administration, the student body, the press, and the community. (Clearly, the problem here was the high-profile nature of the screw-up -- i.e., the governor's daughter! So, I suspect he attempted to bury this out of fear. He gambled; he lost.)

As a HR professional, I'd like to stress how this situation underscores the importance of understanding and defining one's responsibilities (in terms of one's role, one's authoritative boundaries, and one's accountability) prior to accepting a position. While you cannot foresee every potentially negative situation on the horizon, you can probably anticipate generally unexpected circumstances and outline a general response. This is the underlying rationale, for example, of corporate "disaster planning" (all the rage after 9/11).

It's also something I think about on a daily basis here at Horn Dog Enterprises -- defining the scope of our consulting engagements. (Business 101, really ... ) When you're entering into a business transaction, it's critical to get the other guy to sign off on the scope. That way, you're covered in case the scope changes. And it always changes. Garrison fucked that one up bigtime.

So, accountability is important. But something also smacks of the political here, IMHO -- a forum in which accountability is paradoxically linked with much of the ugliness in today's two-party system. Not that I advocate non accountability, of course. But, as an independent, I routinely observe a phenomenon I think of as "blame convenience" -- which is one party's tendency to push the blame directly to the other for each problem we face in the world. No matter what side you're on, it's painfully easy to track a political problem back to someone on the other side of the aisle. Some hypothetical examples:

Republican in the Oval Office when "Some Major Problem" Arises:

Democrat Response: The problem lies with the President because he's in charge -- and besides, all Republicans are idiots.
Republican Response #1: The problem lies with the current and/or previous Democratically controlled Congress.
Republican Response #2: The problem exists because of the previous Democratic administration's policies.

Democrat in the Oval Office when "Some Major Problem" Arises:

Republican Response: The problem lies with the President because he's in charge -- and besides, all Democrats are idiots.
Democrat Response #1: The problem lies with the current and/or previous Republican-controlled Congress.
Democrat Response #2: The problem exists because of the previous Republican administration's policies.

Let's say, for a moment, that there really IS no so-called cosmological first mover for many of our problems (or that maybe there is, but we're to remain hopelessly agnostic therein -- as they're too complex or too dynamic for human comprehension). They still, however, exist.

As such, you do have to kind of admire a guy like Harry Truman, who said, "Look, I'm the guy in charge here, now. So, no matter what happens or happened, it's me who you need to see about it -- at least on my watch." So, in my mind, the question is not, "Who's fault is it?" The question is: Who's in charge now and what is he or she doing about it? One might fairly ask that very question about the current economy.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On June 6, 2008, gifted typist wrote:

That dude is 39? He looks 59.

On June 7, 2008, Chris wrote:

I wrestle with that one at work too, when it comes to holding certain positions accountable for those under them. (Not under them in a Isaiah Thomas kind of way, of course).

On June 7, 2008, Cap'n Ergo Jinglebollocks wrote:

hmmmm ...

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