by Gael O’Brien

Recent crises have led me to wonder what some leaders see when they look in the mirror.

Sometimes a distorted reflection can be the result of leaders isolating themselves, choosing to be surrounded by people who gain the most by taking viewpoints the leaders most want to hear. In a political arena that could help explain why Hosni Mubarak so badly misread his leadership crisis.

Businessman face maskHowever, in the aftermath of some recent corporate crises, I think self deception, no matter how a leader might arrive there, reflects an image that allows leaders to disengage and disconnect from their actual impact on others.  Aside from the damage it does to those affected, it creates an understandable gap in trust, which is the very thing leaders want to re-build after a crisis.

This disconnect is seen as insensitive, a detachment from people and human suffering, and reminds me of a sick joke that has enjoyed popularity for decades. Maybe you’ve heard it?

“So, other than that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln?”

Attributed to a New Yorker cartoon, a Bob Newhart comedy routine and other origins, the line dismisses the assassination and moves on to what really matters.

That joke came to mind when I read a comment BP CEO Bob Dudley made about BP’s safety strides in the last decade : “If you put aside this Macondo incident, 2009 was the best year we’d had, and 2010 was also heading in that direction.”

Macondo is the well in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster that dumped 206 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico that set off a chain of events Gulf residents, families, businesses, and communities continue to address ten months later and will for the foreseeable future.

So what if you aren’t able to compartmentalize and “put aside this Macondo incident”? Dudley’s comment echoes the need some leaders have to ensure you get the point that yes bad things happen, but we want credit for what we are doing right.

While it is an understandable public relations strategy, the disconnect here is that BP’s failure, a failure in reducing risk in process safety, just happened to lead to the worst off- shore oil spill in the world, the environmental implications of which are still unknown.

Then there is the statement that recently became public made by Angelo Mozilo, co-founder and former CEO of Countrywide Financial, to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Mozilo said, “Countrywide was one of the greatest companies in the history of this country and probably made more difference to society, to the integrity of our society than any other company in the history of America.”

However, the tens of thousands of families who became customers and weren’t protected by the company’s lending practices and lost their homes in foreclosure would likely not see Mozilo or Countrywide that way.  Bank of America, which bought Countrywide in 2008, has been busy settling lawsuits that keep coming. Time Magazine ranked Mozilo as one of the “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis”.

Rounding out the integrity issue is the fact that Mozilo had to pay the SEC out of his own pocket a record $22.5 million to settle charges he misled investors as the subprime mortgage crisis unfolded.

As the causes of crises in companies and industries continue to be analyzed to avoid history repeating itself, I’d cast my vote to expose the debilitating effects of self deception so leaders can avert crisis in the first place.

Solving a crisis is never one easy fix, because crises generally are a collection of problems by the time they erupt. However, as self deception is the inability to see you have a problem in the first place, Leadership and Self-Deception,  originally published in 2000, with a new edition last year, by the Arbinger Institute offers useful insights.

The book talks about how we can betray ourselves by acting contrary to our own sense of what is appropriate. When that happens we protect ourselves by seeing the world in a way that justifies our self betrayal; and, as part of that self-justification, we blame others.

This gives us a distorted view of reality and in the process, the book points out, we start seeing others as objects, not having the same needs, worries, hopes, and desires as our own. The more we see them as objects and not just like us, the more important what we need, think, and believe is and the more distorted our reality.

One of the realities of crises is that they evoke emotion in those impacted – including trauma, fear, pain, grieving, anger, and worry. If leaders don’t see into the faces and hearts of the people affected by a crisis their company caused (whether subcontractors were also to blame or not) then they risk seeing only the part of reality that serves them, like for example that a safety record was making great strides. They then get further out of touch with stakeholders they most need to reach.

A byproduct of the focus on the reality one sees affecting oneself is former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s oft-cited gaffe “I want my life back” insensitive at best given the 11 men who died in the rig explosion, the thousands of birds and sea life destroyed, and the incomes and way of life upended in Gulf states.

About that play Mrs. Lincoln…..

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.

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