Are You Getting the Bad News You Need to be a Good Leader?


Are you getting the bad news you need to be a good leader?  Though it has been knocked from the headlines for the past week…I suspect we have not heard the last of the management scandal at the VA. The root of many management disasters in both the public and private sector, is the lack of knowledge by the person in charge to know of and correct problems before they get out of control. Eric Shinseki, the now former VA Secretary, had all the good will in the world to provide veterans with services that have been promised, including timely and effective health care. But he was not aware of the unethical and possibly criminal practices taking place at various health care clinics that included secret waiting lists that had resulted in the avoidable deaths of at least several dozen veterans. The waiting lists were secret even from Shinseki, which did not matter in the end when he had to take the fall.

How could Shinseki have avoided the disaster that has been laid at the feet of his department? The first thing would have been to create a culture where subordinates were comfortable with imparting bad news up the chain of command so that the problem could be dealt with. The reason the secret waiting lists were created in the first place was because treatment for veterans were happening so slowly that wait times were expanding beyond what was reasonable. Instead of bringing the problem to the attention of Shinseki, who might have been able to do something about it, the subordinates decided to hide the problem.

A key part of being an effective leader is to impart the message, as clear as possible, that there will be no sanctions for revealing problems. Indeed the messenger in any organization should not be punished, but rather heralded. Leaders and managers should see problems as challenges…something that is a part of the job. This way problems that start as minor headaches are not allowed to grow into scandals that draw unwanted attention, kill careers, and potentially send people to jail. Shinseki, partly because of politics, VA Department bureaucracy and  partly because of his management style, was unable to effect this kind of system. Thus not just he but numerous others have paid the price. Have you created a workplace culture that supports improving potential problems and increasing efficiency?

If not, it may cost you your career.

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