A Failure of Leadership

Last week, President Obama spoke of a “failure of leadership” at GM. What happens to GM affects their employees, vendors, retirees, contractors, dealerships. However, failures of leadership happen everyday. A failure of leadership in my community last week caused poor and marginalized people locally to lose services. A private agency closed its doors to these people because of a difference of opinion between the board and staff.

Typically, agencies that serve individuals who are poor and marginalized because these folks are incapable of maintaining a permanent situation due to psychological difficulties; or it may be because they can’t qualify for other public or private agency services. Now, a service those folks came to depend on is closed. Disruption of services for marginalized citizens can be worse than not doing anything at all. All that leadership could say was that it happened before and will likely happen again. A sorry state of affairs, I would say.

The shameful part of this entire situation is that it could have been avoided. Apparently, a disagreement between the staff and board caused the disruption in funding and services. The board accused the staff of not providing information needed. The staff wanted to be on the board. Volunteer or not, as a governance professional, I would recommend that the board and staff become crystal clear about their roles and responsibilities. Marginalized people lost vital services that allowed them some degree of self-sufficiency because of governance policy, not public policy issues. An opportunity to re-start this organization exists in the form of an interim board.

Re-starting this service, the board clearly needs to have a commitment to the specific mission to serve the poor and marginalized. The board’s responsibility is to ensure organizational performance. When the former board didn’t deal with problems and differences regarding decision-making, the clients suffered. The new board needs to get its values straight. Decisions of all sorts, as clearly argued by Drucker (The Effective Executive, 1967, pp. 113-141), rest on principles and generic understandings. Without setting down in writing these principles of how decisions will be made, this board will continue to have difficulties. The former board got so caught up in an event-driven incident that they forgot to focus directly on perspectives and values. Therefore, organizational behavior was dysfunctional and the fundamental services provided by the organization were lost to those who need them.

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