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What we have here is a failure of leadership

Recently, I have experienced a failure of leadership in a community that I am an active member. I am referring to the scandal surrounding Episcopal Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook.

Cook was elected as the first female Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland in May 2014. Last week, she was indicted on a number of charges, including vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, and leaving the scene of the accident for her role in a fatal hit-and-run in December that killed bicyclist Tom Palermo.

Of course, Cook is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But this is not about Cook’s innocence or guilt. It is about the failure of leadership in an institution and how an institution might move beyond a tragedy. When leaders in an institution fail, or when an institution fails in appointing good leaders, what is the appropriate course of action?

When faced with a failure of leadership or a systemic fault in an institution, there is a role for young leaders to play. As I see it there are four options: 1) call it a fluke, remove the bad actor, and continue under normal operating procedure; 2) take collective responsibility for the failure of the leader; 3) abandon the institution; or 4) lead.

Of these four, only the fourth makes sense to me.

As to the first, it is possible that bad actors will come to positions of leadership, but they became leaders because a community put them in charge. A bad actor is a fluke only in the sense that they’ve exposed a crack in the system.

On the second, it is unreasonable to expect that all members of a community carry the weight of a bad act around their necks based on one actor’s abhorrent decisions. What is reasonable is for members of the community to expect accountability from all of their leaders at a time of crisis and demand corrective action. If community members aren’t willing to do this, but are inclined to just assign the bad conduct as a fluke, then collective responsibility for failing to act may be appropriate.

The third option is a rationale response. It is also an extraordinary one. It may be an appropriate one later if an organization is unwilling to change itself. However, at the end of the day, bad things are surely to fall on any institution.

Leading is the only immediate response that makes any sense. But in a time of crisis and a failure of leadership, what does leading even look like? First, it is requiring accountability from all the leaders of an institution. Second, it is investigating where the system failed. Third, it is highlighting the failures of where the organization failed. And fourth, it is following through and making necessary reforms to the organization to protect against future harms.

I believe crises are ordinary parts of life that spur us to action, which is not to say that crisis mode should be the norm but rather that our lives are punctuated by crises. The responsible thing to do is fix the situation, not to run away from it, punish yourself for something you didn’t choose, and certainly not to ignore it.

This is the responsible option. It is also happens to be the hardest.

How do you deal with failures of leadership or crises in your organizations?

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