How not to be a hero - abusing power
photo credit: Chicago Art Department here
 
Have you ever wondered where the point is when a person can become a hero or a louse?*
 
Darlene Druyon Air Force scandal contract abuse
Darlene Druyun
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
In the late 90s I provided support for Acquisition Reform to the Undersecretary of the Air Force.  In those days, there was one person that dominated Air Force acquisition – Darlene Druyun, who had the impressive title “Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.”  The acronym for that was AQ … which some said stood for Acquisition Queen. That was the nicest name they had for her. I worked for a division called AQX, and we were tasked with coordinating events and meetings for Darlene Druyun. She was powerful and demanding. Once, she insisted that she wouldn’t drink water from the pitchers we’d placed on the meeting tables – which had been filled from the commercial water coolers in the facility – and demanded I find her some bottled water. I found her a bottle of water – which was bottled by the same company that filled the water coolers – and she was satisfied.  
That’s what Darlene was like, and people did what she demanded because she had an insane amount of power in the Pentagon. As Donald Rumsfeld told the Washington Post “what she did was acquire a great deal of authority and make a lot of decisions, and there was very little adult supervision.”
When she was nearing retirement from federal service, she had some very quiet, very unethical discussions with Michael Sears, CFO of Boeing, about contracts Boeing was bidding on. She used her daughter to send messages to Sears negotiating a job offer from Boeing. When she retired in 2003, Sears hired her – and gave her a huge hiring bonus. 
That triggered a corruption investigation.
Darlene Druyun eventually stood in front of a federal judge in tears and plead guilty to inflating the price of a contract to favor Boeing. She’s also passed information to Boeing on an Airbus bid from EADS – one of their competitors.  Fines, serious jail time and community service were the results.  Sears was fired and also convicted of corruption. Boeing’s CEO resigned and the company ended up paying a $615 million fine for their involvement. It was the worst Pentagon scandal in more than two decades (you can read more about it here). 
But there was a point when she was having those quiet discussions with Michael Sears when she must have realized, “This is crossing the line!”  She had been taught and she had spoken on the need to avoid conflict of interest and favoritism. She’d been called out before for ethical issues and knew that she needed to be careful.  She knew what was right and what was wrong.  And she decided to try to hide it.
But what if she had instead said, “Michael, we are going too far.  I’m stopping this now.”  What if she had picked up the phone, called the ethics compliance officer, and said, 
I was just having a friendly discussion with Boeing’s CFO and I realized we had gone too far.  I am immediately recusing myself from all acquisitions involving Boeing and I will announce this to my superiors, all members of AQ, and I will make a public statement to the same.
The result?  Darlene Druyon would be a hero – featured in every ethics compliance class as how to do it right – instead of how to do it wrong.
 
Take 10 minutes:
Where’s the point for you?
How far is too far?

 

If you reach that point, how do you turn back?
 
Frank Hutchison crisis management signature
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
*Peter O’Toole portrayed this moment wonderfully in Lord Jim when most of the crew is fearful and already in the long boat abandoning the passengers. Jim (Peter O’Toole) is on the edge looking back at the passengers.  For an instant, you wonder will he stay or jump?  Will he be a hero or a louse?  
(No, I’m not going to ruin the suspense – go watch the movie or read the book for free at Project Gutenberg!)

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.