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Leadership Lessons the Hard Way: Reflections on the Oxfam Crisis

(originally published 07/04/18 on Linked-In)

Two months on from the media storm surrounding Oxfam’s Haiti sex scandal, what leadership lessons can we learn from Oxfam’s mistakes? Three come immediately to mind:

1.      Beware moral complacency: we all have the ability to make bad moral choices. People doing good work are not immune from doing bad things.

Much of the shock of the Oxfam scandal came from a deep-seated assumption that people doing good work must be ‘morally perfect’ people. But such organisations are still made up of flawed individuals, like everywhere else. It doesn’t mean the message is bad or any less worthy of our response. Neither does it mean that we should give up supporting what they do. The tragic irony is that while many supporters are abandoning Oxfam, they are probably the organisation least likely to offend in the same way again.

Juliet Samuel writing in the Daily Telegraph (20.02.18) suggests that the power differential between those helping and those being helped in aid agencies means they may be especially prone to abuses of power. Perhaps there is even more onus on those of us whose focus is on attending to the needs of the less powerful, to set, and to be accountable to, higher moral standards. And not because we’re better than anyone else, but because we know we are not.

2.      Come completely clean before you have to: half-hearted transparency is often worse than a cover-up and does more long-term damage.

Thankfully, this is one of the lessons Oxfam seemed to glean from this crisis early on. While the misconduct was ‘dealt with’ by allowing resignations and terminating others involved, and the Charity Commission was informed, it seems that the potential sexual exploitation of minors was not revealed.

Some pundits have suggested that a culture of creeping managerialism is to blame: that a greedy focus on ‘profits’ and the ‘bottom line’, imbibed from business, was allowed to infiltrate decision-making. I think this is unfair and inaccurate. As our CEO at Roffey Park, Michael Jenkins, was at pains to remind us during the last financial crisis: “No money – no mission”. It doesn’t take creeping managerialism to tempt a charity into a cover-up. The loss of its ability to fulfil the mission that its people care deeply and passionately about is quite sufficient.

At the same time, addressing moral failures in a less than transparent way is probably storing up trouble for later. Far better to lance the boil and get all the pus out than let it fester.

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson found a few of its best-selling Tylenol painkiller capsules had been laced with cyanide, resulting in seven deaths in the Chicago area. Even though it seemed to be a localised problem, J&J’s response of recalling all 31 million bottles on the shelves nationwide, replacing them free of charge with tamper-proof alternatives, marked them out as heroes. And it wasn’t long before their market share of painkillers returned to near pre-crisis levels. Theirs was the first ever example of a total product recall and it was based on their 1940 credo of putting customers before profits. Their example has been copied by many others since.

3.      Apologise without reservation: the media storm will be disproportionate, containing lies, false accusations and distorted truths. Reactive defensiveness is the worst policy.

On 16 February, Oxfam GB’s CEO, Mark Goldring, launched a stern defence of Oxfam in the Guardian, declaring that the attacks on the charity were: "out of proportion to the level of culpability". He added that: "The intensity and the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do? Did we murder babies in their cots?" Goldring also suggested that critics were motivated by an anti-aid agenda and said that "anything we say is being manipulated... even apologies only make matters worse." He acknowledged Oxfam could have acted faster but said: "what I felt really clearly is many people haven't wanted to listen to explanations".

Now, his claims may have been true, but his response showed a degree of either naivety, or impulsivity by someone who should have known better. When someone is under intense emotional pressure, he or she desperately needs wise counsel from other senior managers to choose their words carefully. I’m not sure what advice he had, but if I was Oxfam’s Communications Director, I would have advised against such a message. Perhaps he was warned. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time a CEO has rashly ignored his or her advisers in the heat of the moment.

In fairness to Goldring, the contrast in tone in the full-page apology published in The Guardian the next day, and his humility in front of the UK Government's Select Committee a few days later, including his regret for his ill-chosen defence, should be commended. In the face of unfair and unjust accusations, it is often better to ignore vitriol and apologise unreservedly for what is, unfortunately, true. As I often counsel leaders, a ‘but’ in an apology (eg “I’m sorry, but…”) will wipe out any value it may have had and will simply sound like a justification. Best keep your “but” out of it!

In summary..

So - three lessons from the Oxfam crisis that all leaders and managers, and not just those from aid agencies, would do well to bear in mind. However, I wonder if something else was also at work in Oxfam that I have seen at work in other aid organisations. It’s when an organisation’s key strengths become its Achilles’ Heel. Like the lessons above, it is a lesson that many organisations need to learn.

More on this in my next posting…

Author: Adrian Lock, Founder, Deeper Leaders

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