Perhaps you have heard the expression “A fish rots from the head down”. It is an old proverb of uncertain origin that exists in many different languages.
While this proverb is not anatomically correct, it is a powerful metaphor for lack of leadership accountability in organizations. “When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause”. Among the key roles of top executives is to create the right organizational culture and clear leadership accountability. This culture assures adaptation to changing customer needs, disruptions in markets, growth in value and ethical behaviors by employees at all levels. When there is failure in those expectations, the accountability for failure is assigned to top executives. Likewise, when companies fail to execute growth strategies and transform their organizations, it is because the top executives fail to lead. That is, they fail to be accountable as leaders which in turn translates into lack of leadership accountability in implementation.
Read on and learn about:
- the Volkswagen example
- the Wells Fargo example
- the elements of ‘Leadership Accountability’
“Rotting from the Head Down” or failure for senior managers to be accountable as leaders is all too common. There is a steady stream of corporate scandals in which one can only be amazed at the seeming denial and naivety of executives. Did Volkswagen executives really think that their illegal software patch would never be discovered? Or was it, “They may find out but it will not be on my watch”. Where was the Volkswagen Board in assuring the presence of strong leadership accountability? We can only imagine, but we can see the unintended consequences. Perhaps the consequences are best reflected in this photo from Der Spiegel Spiegel with the title “The Suicide” which reflects the view of Volkswagen essentially killing itself.
Did the executives at Wells Fargo believe that their punitive, high pressure tactics on employees would not produce undesirable behavior toward customers? Why did they not investigate when reports of employee’s bad behavior began to emerge? How is it that 5,300 employees were fired related to these issues and the Wells Fargo Board did not notice? Who was assuring proper leadership accountability was in place? Doesn’t that indicate the executives knew there was a problem with phony customer accounts being opened which produced unwarranted fees for the bank? Why did they wait to act until they were caught by a federal agency? Did the CEO actually think that no actions but being contrite in front of US Congress would carry the day?
All of these questions defy logic for respected executives who are highly paid. Yet these sorts of events have gone on for decades and continue. Consider that “a fish rots from the head down” comes from the lack of leadership accountability in the organization. I’m not talking about accountability policies which are written by lawyers and adopted as yet another part of the management processes. These large companies likely had such policies and yet did not affect the behaviors of top executives.
What is Leadership Accountability?
The “Rotting Fish Head” comes from an unwillingness to act in an accountable manner and to establish a context of leadership accountability in the organization. The converse of this is also accurate. The transformational organizations which have produced stunning financial and strategic results were led by executives who:
- Were tenacious about being accountable,
- Acted in ways to demonstrate the essential nature of leadership accountability, and
- Established a firm context of leadership accountability in the organization. Often this involved acting on direct reports and other executives/managers who were politically connected and well liked, but unwilling to act in a self-accountable manner.
Too often there are executives who philosophize and talk about accountability but do not act on their accountabilities. Talking about accountability is not the same as being accountable and exercising leadership accountability. It sad to see how many executives talk about accountability, seem to want accountability in the organization, and yet are unwilling to be personally accountable.
Accountability and leadership are inexorably linked. Accountability is an acute and overt manifestation of leadership. Leadership involves accepting and acting on the accountabilities of the position. One of the first values which must be present in an organizational culture is accountability. Among the strongest evidence of sound leadership is that the executives, managers, and employees have a new relationship to accountability, and this new relationship to accountability is manifested in the performance of the business, relationships with stakeholders, and service provided to customers.
While the phrase “a Fish Rots from the Head Down” is not anatomically correct, it does provide a visual metaphor for the importance of a culture of accountability and powerful leadership from top executives. Further, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo serve as painful reminders of how well respected companies can damage their brands, customers, employees, financial performance and shareholder value with actions that can only be described as “Dunderhead”!
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