What businesses can learn from government mistakes

April 27, 2012

Nashville Business Journal


Two recent high-profile incidents have proven there’s a lack of basic leadership at the highest levels of government. The first involved Government Services Administration (GSA) members partying in grand style all over the U.S. The second was the Secret Service prostitute scandal before the hemispheric conference in Columbia. Both examples show a blatant disregard for basic leadership by chief executives in some of our top agencies.

Unbelievably Unethical
The GSA left a trail of over-the-top carousing from Hawaii to Las Vegas while a nation in debt continued to fall further behind every day. There’s no excuse: While the GSA leader did not even attend the infamous near-million-dollar Vegas conference, she certainly still had oversight responsibility. Taxpayers (the employers) expect the GSA to fulfill its mission of maintaining government buildings and related services at a reasonable cost. We don’t expect to be supporting our leaders’ wild nights on the Strip.

The case of the Secret Service demonstrates an even greater lack of leadership. If the Secret Service director had regularly communicated a culture of ethical behavior and shown a passion for the integrity of the organization, it is unlikely that any Secret Service member would have ever considered hiring a hooker on a presidential mission. Even if one agent got out of line, you’d expect others to jump in to either correct the situation or turn in the offender. Sadly, devoid of ethical leadership, these entitled agents felt no sense of responsibility to themselves, the agency, the President or the public.

Learning Our Lessons
Similar issues raise their ugly heads all the time in the business world. There are stories daily about value breakdowns by corporate leaders who have failed to set the right ethical direction. Instead of endless investigations into why these situations occur and irrelevant laws to prevent them from happening again, the action we should take to prevent ethical lapses is re-instituting basic leadership principles for chief executives. Here’s a little refresher on Leadership 101:

• Be clear about values and never bend those values.
• Passionately discuss values so everyone, without exception, is on the same page.
• Set clear direction and expectations that will lead to achieving the expected results.
• Define the central mission clearly, loudly and repetitively so that no one is confused.
• To be sure your message sticks, say it 10 times or more since people only retain 10% of what they hear a week later.
• Communicate regularly so people can understand and follow your mission going forward.

Strong, ethical leaders are the foundation of good government and back-to-basics business. It’s up to each leader to start changing our world one principle at a time.


Joe Scarlett is founder of the Scarlett Leadership Institute and the retired chairman of Tractor Supply Co. He can be reached at joe@scarlettleadership.com.

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