Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rupert Murdock Fails Management 101

Rupert Murdock apologized profusely today in response to accusations form the UK parliament but accepted no responsibility for all that happened under his watch as the leader of News Corp. Rebecca Brooks similarly seemed to suggest that her lack of awareness of the scandals absolves her of any responsibility. These remarks are particularly striking because they naively overlook the influence of institutions on the behaviour of individuals. By institution I mean the business itself that possesses an intricate array of complex systems and processes that shape norms, standards, belief systems, and principles resulting in collective behaviour and a well-defined and highly influential culture. Consider an organization's aggressive reward systems or promotion criteria that elicit a highly aggressive competitive environment or internal norms related to unethical behaviour that leaders endorse or ignore. As Noam Chomsky put it in describing the behaviour of organization members of particularly psychopathic corporations:

“When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. As individuals they may be nice to their slaves, benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, caring about other people. But in their institutional role they may be monsters, because the institution is monstrous” (Chomsky from The Corporation).

Decades of research has concluded that leaders, executives, and managers shape and mold the culture of their organizations through the institution of these systems and structures and, most importantly, through their own behaviour. In explaining the downfall of Enron, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” nicely showed the similarity between the leadership style of President Jeff Skilling and the highly competitive and aggressive behaviour of their traders. The aggressive culture created by Enron leaders transcended to other parts of the organization. Management research would therefore predict that these traders may not have engaged in similar behaviour in another organization under a different culture.

The influence of leaders on the behaviour of their organizations is undeniable. Although Murdock might not have known about particular scandals, there is no question that he is indirectly responsible for the behaviour of his employees. In fact, I would argue that Murdock’s molding of News Corp’s culture is more destructive than his role in choreographing any individual hacking initiative. To absolve responsibility as a leader in situations like these ignores the fundamentals of Leadership 101. Rupert presumes that organizational culture is irrelevant and that individuals behave through their own devices. Large organizations are complex and leaders of these organizations accept a risk and responsibility of the actions of the organization. Otherwise, they do not belong in these positions.

Photo taken from reproduced through Creative Commons

Monday, July 11, 2011

Canada's Oil Sands and the Survival of Humanity

In light of ongoing US debate about whether to go ahead with the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would connect Alberta to the southern states, a number of articles have emerged flagging the climactic consequences of extracting oil from the tar sands. While these assertions are not at all new, recent articles have stressed warnings put forward by James Hansen, which suggest that if all the oil were to be extracted tomorrow, CO2 emissions would increase from 390 parts per million today to 600 parts per million, well above the scientifically recommended 350 parts per million.

600 parts per million is an amount equivalent to a time millions of years ago when life on Earth nearly died. Several people are therefore positioning Canada’s decision to exploit this resource as the defining moment that will determine whether humanity curbed its effect on the climate or whether, as Stern worries, it is "essentially game over".

In a recent post, I argued that Canada's enthusiastic extraction of oil is ultimately a signal of our country's unsustainability. But lately, authors are extending the consequences of Canada’s decision to the survival of the human species.

Unfortunately the people of Canada, while seemingly concerned about these sorts of issues, are not at all eager to initiate pressure on their governments to stop this infernal machine. As I’ve written before, Canada’s culture fundamentally lacks the leadership required to initiate social change. This lack of leadership is particularly pervasive in our government but it is also evident in Canadian citizens. I asked a Calgarian the other day about her thoughts on the climate change impacts of oil sands extraction and her answer was, “but that’s where the money is right now”.

The climate change story is getting oil; so old that while people know it's a problem, serious action to curb our impact has taken a back seat. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Alberta where many (not all) people are raking in thousands at the expense of future generations. Keeping our heads in the "oil" sand is not only going to compromise future Canadian generations but, as Stern notes, the future of humanity. We have the power as Canadians to show leadership. The question is: will we exercise that power and re-brand our position in the world as thought leaders in curbing climate change? I sure hope so!