The 10 worst leadership moments of 2013

December 23, 2013

Could 2013 have been any worse for President Obama? The president's fifth year in office was filled with crisis after crisis. Some of them, such as the gridlock in Congress or the I.R.S. scandal, were not entirely under his control. But far too many were the result of mismanagement (Healthcare.gov), misspeaking (the red line on Syria) or misleading ("if you like your plan, you can keep it"). These blunders were enough to prompt some to call 2013 the president's "lost year"—one that could have lasting damage on his legacy.

But the White House wasn't the only one this year to provide notable examples of leadership fumbles or management missteps. From Canada to Italy, Washington to San Diego, there were plenty of places where we expected much more from people in power. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for the worst leadership moments of 2013.

1. Obstruction in Washington forces a 16-day government shutdown.


(The Washington Post)

It was the ultimate dereliction of leadership. Lawmakers seemed unable to do their jobs as Republicans tried to work outside the normal legislative process to defund or postpone the Affordable Care Act, causing a government shutdown that cost the U.S. economy billions, dampened the morale of both current and prospective government workers, and damaged the image of U.S. leadership and credibility abroad. The 16-day saga put the worst of Washington's dysfunction on display. Even if recent budget deliberations have gone more smoothly (albeit without much compromise), the fear still exists it could all happen again.

2. The Healthcare.gov debacle reinforced Obama's leadership weaknesses.


Jon Elswick/AP

The blundered roll-out of the Healthcare.gov Web site was a case study in mismanagement—the project lacked a single leader who could direct the sprawling effort, and suffered from crippling politics and bureaucratic problems from the start. The disaster was made worse because it fit with the narrative we've heard so many times about Obama's White House. Right or wrong, it reinforced the image of an insular place run by an aloof president inattentive to the details of governing.

3. Gun control legislation failed not because of a lack of leadership, but in spite of it.


(Allison Shelley/Getty)

It would be easy to say that gun control legislation failed in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting because we didn't have enough leaders willing to fight for it. And in some sense, that is true: If more Congress members voted for the legislation, it would have passed. But there was leadership on the gun control issue. President Obama gave the issue extraordinary attention, and in a rare moment of bipartisanship, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey (Pa.) came together on the bill that ultimately failed. What may be most disappointing about the effort's failure is that even when leaders did stick their necks out on an issue, it still wasn't enough to enact change.

4. The pseudo-apology got too much airtime.


(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lance Armstrong did it on Oprah. Lululemon's chairman did it on YouTube. Barilla's CEO put his on the company's Web site (before issuing others). Over and over again this year, we saw leaders fumble their apologies for the offending comments they made or offending actions they took. Their attempts to apologize backfired when people viewed them as too qualified or, in some cases, too hesitant in their remorse. Leaders who make the effort to say sorry need to take full responsibility, avoid trying to explain away the problem, and—it would seem—stay off of YouTube.

5. On sexual assault issues, the service chiefs looked in denial.


(Win McNamee/Getty Images).

The good news is that reform is coming to the military's embarrassing sexual assault crisis. As part of the annual defense policy bill that passed late Thursday, legislation will now end the statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault or rape; prevent military leaders from overturning jury convictions in such cases; and mandate the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of them. But it doesn't go so far as to limit the involvement of commanders and hand over such cases to independent prosecutors, a change Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has been pushing. Back in June, the service chiefs called sexual assault a "discipline issue" and turned their noses up at the idea of “some unknown third-party prosecutor." At the time, their views came off as tone-deaf to the problem.

6. Rob Ford was ... Rob Ford.


(REUTERS/Aaron Harris)

Toronto's mayor is in a class by himself. Where to begin? In 2013, the leader of Canada's largest city has (among many other thingsadmitted to smoking crack cocaine after repeatedly denying the claims, been stripped of many of his powers as mayor and, most recently, gotten attention for making insulting remarks to women. By one count, Ford has made at least nine public apologies since May. And yet he's still in office, and vows to stay there. The next election is nearly a year away, and it promises to be a long one for the city's citizens.

7. Ron Johnson lost his shine at J.C. Penney.


(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The former head of Apple's retail business and star executive at Target was lured to J.C. Penney to inject some cool into the discount retailer. But he went too far with plans to wean customers off of discounts, radically overhaul the stores and plow ahead without testing ideas first. Behind the scenes, he brought in a suite of executive outsiders who commuted by plane to their jobs. Customers left in droves, and Johnson was out in April.

8. The Boy Scouts changed their rules—but not for everyone. 


Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The vote in May by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America to allow openly gay youth to join the organization was welcomed as progress. But its decision to continue the ban on gay scout leaders was a head-scratcher that sent a confusing message to the very youth it was now welcoming. In addition to signalling to young gay scouts that their futures are not equal to their peers, the move meant the Boy Scouts would potentially risk missing out on great leaders who could lend their energy to the organization, too.

9. Mike Shanahan didn't bench RGIII when it really mattered.


(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan may have ended the year by benching quarterback Robert Griffin III, as the team's season spiraled into dysfunctional drama. But he began the year by making the costly and fateful decision to do the opposite—allowing his ailing and rookie quarterback to keep playing when he shouldn't have. As the Post's Dan Steinberg recounted in his list of D.C.'s worst sports moments of the year, "it was a terrible sports year, but there was nothing worse than the moment Griffin went down and stayed down."

10. Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner tried, and failed, to succeed on the comeback trail.


(AP)

Two campaigns—the one by Eliot Spitzer for New York City comptroller and the one by Anthony Weiner for mayor of New York—showed that voters will only overlook so much in the personal lives of their elected leaders. Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor in 2008 amid a prostitute scandal, and Weiner, who was caught repeatedly "sexting" lewd photos of himself, made attempts to redeem their political careers. Especially in the case of Weiner, who continued sexting after he resigned from Congress and tried to brush up his image as "the best dad and husband I can be," it was one plea for forgiveness too many. There are limits, we learned, to voters' capacity to forgive and forget.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The Healthcare.gov mess fits Obama's leadership narrative

Pasta Chairman Guido Barilla and the tricky art of the apology

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | December 20, 2013