The Washington Post Test- Lying, Scandals, Crisis Management, Ethics
photo credit: mike.benedetti  here

I’m fascinated with failure. I’m fascinated with why people fail, especially people with lots of experience in positions of power. What causes someone who has demonstrated the drive, intelligence, smarts and success to end up committing genuinely stupid criminal acts?  Yes, stupid – because they are bound to come out at some time. And when they come out, how do you explain how you got to that point?

Consider Ken Lay of Enron infamy. He was CEO of Enron from 1985 to 2002 except for a few months in 2000 when he was the Chairman – until the SEC discovered he’d been committing unprecedented securities fraud. Imagine working for over twenty years and finally reaching the pinnacle of your company’s hierarchy. And then doing something so big and so dumb that you destroy the lives of thousands of employees and you name becomes synonymous with corruption and corporate wrong-doing.
Hiding losses in subsidiaries?  How could Ken Lay miss that that wouldn’t look good and wasn’t a sustainable solution to his company’s problems?  I can’t believe that he woke up one day, his sleeping wife beside him, and he suddenly thought, “Hey! I’ve never run a $100 billion dollar company into the ground!  I wonder what it would feel like to cause 133,000 people to lose their jobs, their retirements and their dreams. I bet I could totally destroy Enron and Arthur Anderson and be convicted of fraud! Let’s give it a try!”
No, CEOs wake up thinking, “How am I going to win today?
And after a while, despite the best intentions and proper upbringing, winning becomes more and more important.
Until any hint that they’re not winning becomes unthinkable.
And if not winning is unthinkable, then anything that helps winning – or hides not winning -becomes desirable.
And desirable becomes possible.  Which becomes done.
That’s how it happens. One little step at a time. Unless there are mechanisms in place to prevent it.
 
So how do you keep yourself and your organization from going too far?
You understand that those mechanisms aren’t complex and don’t require manuals full of procedures and regulation. They’re as simple as asking questions. And you can start by asking and answering them yourself.
When I was first assigned to the Naval Sea System Command in Washington DC I heard of a simple test to gauge your actions – “The Washington Post Test.”  It goes like this:
If what you’re going to do was published 
on the front page of the Washington Post, 
would you look good?
Ask yourself – would you recognize when you’ve gone too far? And if you don’t, how can you recognize with those around you have, too? Start now. As Marty Zwilling said in his spot-on post this morning:

“Leaders drive values, values drive behavior, behavior drives culture, and culture drives performance. High performance makes new leaders. This is the self-reinforcing circle of excellence every startup needs to succeed. You can’t afford to wait on any of these, so get your culture right sooner rather than later.”
Frank Hutchison Me2 signature

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.