10 Great Leadership Blunders: 2009
In the spirit of the countless year-in-review lists that appear every January, I'm happy to present the Vital Integrities Blog's annual ranking of the ten dumbest leadership actions of the past twelve months. From corporate scandals to political missteps to coaching shenanigans, 2009 was jam-packed with stories of stupid leadership behavior. Here, then, are just ten examples of dim-witted leadership moves appearing in the news last year.
1. As the year began, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis basked in the glory of his company's acquisition of Merrill Lynch. At a time when financial institutions were collapsing all around him, Lewis had brilliantly snagged a coveted prize -- or so it seemed. As it turned out, Merrill Lynch had its own problems: $15 billion in losses that Lewis knew about but neglected to disclose to BofA shareholders. Lewis also forgot to mention that, as part of the deal, BofA had approved the payments of $5.8 billion in bonuses to the very Merrill executives who created the losses. Before long, Lewis was asking Congress for an additional $20 billion in taxpayer aid, bringing the government's total BofA bailout to $45 billion. Bamboozled stockholders wisely booted him as board chair, and the SEC has filed charges. The beleaguered Lewis gallantly resigned as CEO.
2. Pilots captaining a Northwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Minneapolis led their passengers off course -- by 150 miles! Tim Cheney and Richard Cole claimed they were so engrossed in deciphering the airline's new crew-scheduling system on their laptop computers that they lost track of time and forgot to land the plane (Delta Airlines acquired Northwest earlier in the year). Air traffic controllers, unable to establish radio contract with the plane for 77 minutes, feared it had been hijacked and notified military officials. As a result, air defense commanders readied fighter jets for a possible midair interception. The FAA promptly revoked the pilots' licenses and, hopefully, confiscated their laptops.
3. When Carlotta Freeman reported that a male co-worker was badgering her with "sexually explicit and racially charged statements," her supervisor at the Whirlpool plant in La Vergne, Tennessee told her to ignore him. When the harassment continued, that same supervisor offered another brilliant solution: he suggested that Freeman give in and have sex with the man. The verbal abuse persisted before turning physical: angry that she reported him yet again, Freeman's white harasser punched her in the face and knocked her onto an assembly line. In court, Whirlpool tried to deny its responsibility in the incident; however, federal Judge John T. Nixon found that every level of management mishandled Freeman's complaints and ordered the company to pay her $1 million.
4. Managers at a Wal-Mart store in Easton, Pennsylvania were concerned that employees were stealing merchandise. So, hoping to catch dishonest workers in the act of shoplifting, the supervisors secretly installed a video camera: in a public unisex bathroom! Employees, who also used the bathroom as a changing room, discovered the surveillance camera and complained. According to a lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart, management fired three of the workers for reporting the unlawful invasion of privacy.
5. The dumbest-comment-by-a-leader award goes to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. After a passenger aboard a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit attempted to set off an explosive device, Napolitano announced on CNN that "the system worked." Critics swiftly pointed out that the "system" she was referring to allowed a would-be bomber, whose name had been added to a database of possible terrorists, to board an international flight without any luggage and with a one-way ticket that he paid for with cash. Napolitano claimed her remark had been taken out of context, but later conceded, "Our system did not work in this instance."
6. After U.S. taxpayers coughed up $173 billion to rescue financial behemoth American International Group from certain extinction, the company paid its top executives $165 million in bonuses. It was that kind of audacity that prompted government pay czar Kenneth Feinberg to implement a $500,000 salary cap for executives of bailed-out companies. For some leaders at AIG, that meant sizeable pay cuts. So Anastasia Kelly, AIG's general counsel, led a handful of executives who threatened to resign if the cap was enforced. While the other executives changed their minds, Kelly made good on her warning and quit. Now that's a system that works. As if to prove that AIG executives are clueless, CEO Robert Benmosche issued a press release saying, "On behalf of the management team, employees, and the Board of Directors, I would like to thank Stasia for her tireless service to the company."
7. Texas Tech University officials fired head football coach Mike Leach for mistreating an injured player. After receiver Adam James was diagnosed with a concussion, Leach allegedly ordered trainers to put him in "the darkest place you can find." And they obeyed, forcing James to stand in an unlit equipment room while the rest of the team practiced. According to James, the former Big 12 coach of the year isolated him again two days later in a noisy electrical closet; when the buzzing became unbearable, trainers moved him to an empty pressroom and again told him not to sit. TTU booted Leach days before the Red Raiders were to play in the Alamo Bowl, and mere moments before Leach was to collect an $800,000 bonus.
8. Speaking of dumb coaches: The Covenant School in Texas fired girls basketball coach Micah Grimes for inflicting a 100-0 pounding over opponent Dallas Academy. Officials at Covenant, a private Christian high school, promptly apologized for the blowout and moved to forfeit the game. Dallas Academy teaches students struggling with diagnosed learning differences. For his part, Grimes refused to apologize for the smack down, saying his team "played with honor and integrity."
9. For several days in June, residents of South Carolina did not know where their Governor Mark Sanford was. Not to worry, said his staff eventually; the governor is off "hiking the Appalachian Trail." That phrase soon became a naughty euphemism when Sanford later admitted that he had in fact been secretly visiting his mistress in Argentina. Efforts to impeach Sanford were unsuccessful, but his wife told him to take a hike.
10. It was a bad year for South Carolina Republicans. As President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on health care reform, Representative Joe Wilson angrily shouted, "You lie!" The emotional outburst stunned politicos on both sides of the aisle. "No president has ever been treated like that. Ever," said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Wilson later apologized for his "lack of civility."Bookmark this post on del.icio.us
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