The worst leadership moments of 2011


Rep. Anthony Weiner is among the many stars of the worst leadership moments of 2011. (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)
December 19, 2011

‘Tis the season for year-end lists, which tell us everything from the fact that Rebecca Black mattered on Google in 2011 to Time’s idea that the collective “protester” was the person of the year. There are lists for music, books and movies. Even Barbara Walters has a list to name the most fascinating person of the year (it’s Steve Jobs, of course). 

Not to be left out, we at Post Leadership decided we needed our own year-end list. But rather than highlight the best leadership moments of the year—our esteemed panel has already picked a few of those —we thought we’d highlight some of the worst. After all, this was a year, sadly, when examples of poor leadership (bad decision-making, selfish actions and inexplicably bone-headed moves) seemed to outnumber the good.

Any such list is unscientific at best, so we’ll admit there are numerous examples of leadership gone wrong that were not included on this list (Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, just to name a few). Our intent, however, is not to create a list of authoritarian heads of state or every poor instance of leadership of any kind. Rather, we wanted to pull together the stories that made us scratch our heads about people from whom we think we should expect more.

Enough throat clearing, then. Here—with apologies to David Letterman—is our “Top 10”:

10. Obama and Boehner battle over the timing of the president’s jobs speech.

In the grand scheme of things, this was a pretty inconsequential event. But for what it says about the ridiculous nature of what brings Washington to an impasse these days, it’s worth remembering. At the end of the summer, President Obama asked Speaker of the House John Boehner if he could address a joint session of Congress during prime time on Sept. 7, the same evening as one of the Republican presidential debates. The Speaker cited House scheduling conflicts and encouraged the president to consider Sept. 8 instead, the same night as the kickoff game for the NFL season. While the White House said GOP leadership had OKed the requested date, Boehner’s office said it hadn’t. The episode was embarrassing for the president, trivial given the circumstances, and silly on all accounts. If we can’t get two sides to agree on the date of a speech, how can we possibly get them to solve the extraordinary problems facing this country?

9. HP’s board loses another CEO.

There was no shortage of CEOs who lost their jobs this year. NPR’s board pushed out its chief executive, Vivian Schiller, following a conservative sting operation. Yahoo’s board unceremoniously fired Carol Bartz over the phone. And Olympus got rid of its CEO, Michael Woodford, after he dared to blow the whistle on accounting fraud. But as newsworthy as each of those stories may have been, no CEO dismissal this year says more about the state of governance in corporate America than the departure of former HP chief Leo Apotheker (he was replaced by Meg Whitman). The HP board’s rush last year to fill former HP CEO Mark Hurd’s seat led to the choice of a leader who had recently lasted just 10 months as CEO of SAP and would only last at HP for 11. This happened, mind you, after both Hurd and his predecessor, fellow HP outsider Carly Fiorina, failed to last in their jobs, too. Apotheker’s short stint atop HP says less about the company’s specific industry challenges than it does about the persistent need for boards to do a better job grooming internal leaders instead of seeking a savior to fix their problems.

8.  Anthony Weiner tries to cover up his, um, exposures.

Political sex scandals are nothing new. But there was something about “Weinergate”—the scandal that erupted after pictures of Weiner’s bulging boxer shorts were tweeted to a young woman—that seemed to bring the genre to new lows. Maybe it was Weiner’s odd initial defense (he first said social networking identity hacking was to blame for the photo and then said he couldn’t “say with certitude” if the picture was of his underwear) before coming clean. Maybe it’s that it took him so long to decide to resign. Or maybe we’re just all so tired of the antics in Congress that the idea that one of them was wasting time sending around photos of his underwear to young women was finally just too much. If we can’t expect them to solve this country’s problems, can’t we at least expect them to keep their pants on?

7. Netflix goes tone-deaf and then reverses itself.

Netflix already had a bunch of angry customers after it made changes to its service in July that amounted to a price increase. So when Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, posted an entry to the company’s blog that began “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation,” one can understand how customers might think he was about to reverse course. Instead, in a letter that read as being remarkably out of touch, Hastings went on to explain a business change that created further inconveniences for customers by splitting its services in two. Not long afterwards, Netflix did in factreverse the move, this time saying it would not split the services after all—but not before the stock fell precipitously and the company infuriated thousands of customers. From a company whose CEO had been recently named “businessperson of the year” and whose business was flying high, it was all the more surprising. Lesson learned: When you say you’re sorry, make sure you know what kind of apology customers are looking for.

6. GOP candidates don’t respond to crowd’s health insurance jeers during debate.

Any GOP debate highlight reel from this year would include some real doozies, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s infamously awkward moment when he couldn’t recall the third government agency he’d eliminate. But the leadership moment I recall most was the one when Ron Paul was asked in a September debate whether or not an uninsured 30-year-old man should be left to die if a tragedy put him into a coma. What was astonishing was not Paul’s response—his libertarian views are well known—or the crowd’s “yeah!”s in response to the idea that someone who meets such an unfortunate end should be left to die. What was most disturbing was that none of the candidates stepped in to remind the crowd that life is sacred, or to admonish them for the cheers. A true opportunity to demonstrate leadership was missed entirely.

5. News Corp. shows the limits of the “know nothing” defense.

When the phone hacking scandal that engulfed News Corp. hit this past summer, James Murdoch deployed the “know nothing” defense. Rupert Murdoch’s son, who runs the company’s Europe and Asia operations, said in a  statement over the summer that “I now know that I did not have a complete picture” of how widespread the mobile phone hacking practice was when he approved out-of-court settlements that would prevent the victims from sharing information. That defense didn’t really work then—expressions of ignorance weakens one’s credibility as a leader, for one—and they don’t work  now, especially since emails have since emerged that show he was briefed on the subject. Leadership means being responsible not only for one’s own actions, but for the environments which foster such practices in the first place.

4. School test-score cheating runs rampant.

There is something very wrong with an incentive system that rewards cheating. But that’s exactly what we learned this year has been a problem or is under investigation for being one at several major public school systems, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, where a governor’s report found evidence of rampant cheating within its school system. The problem stems from incentives put into place in recent years that reward teachers monetarily for improving test scores. What should we be doing instead? We need to be treating teachers like professionals, holding offenders up as a lesson, and rethinking our reliance on test scores and the rewards given for them. School system leaders will need to find better ways to motivate teachers or risk failing at what may just be our biggest leadership task of all—the education of our children.

3. Japan’s long-term leadership vacuum catches up with it.

The tsunami that rocked Japan in March would have been incredibly devastating under any circumstance. But the bungled communication and seeming lack of control over the response to the earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster was made worse by the short-termism that has plagued Japan’s leaders. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who led Japan when the tsunami hit, had been in office just 10 months and was fending off calls for his resignation just hours before the catastrophe occurred. The country has had six prime ministers in less than five years, and in the years since World War II ended, Japan has had more than 30 leaders. The revolving door at the top of Japan’s decentralized, bureaucratic government only compounded the country’s ability to respond. As The New York Times put it: “Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more—and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed.”

2. Penn State officials keep quiet about an alleged child molester.

The horrific and numerous allegations of sexual assault of minors against former Pennsylvania State University defense coordinator Jerry Sandusky were disturbing enough. But what made our collective blood boil over about this disturbing story were the charges that Penn State officials didn’t do much to stop them when told of such unthinkable acts. The university’s athletic director and the official in charge of police allegedly failed to report the charges of sexual abuse of small children and, a grand jury report claims, made false statements under oath about it. (Both men testified recently that they weren’t told the extent of what was witnessed.) Others who were reportedly told about the incident, from iconic coach Joe Paterno to university president Graham Spanier, did not act aggressively enough. The leaders of a football program known for its moral rectitude didn’t put it to use when it was needed most.

1. Hyper-partisanship, and a lack of executive leadership, block deficit reform.

There are any number of people or events who can be blamed for the intransigence in Washington over budget and deficit reform. There are the Republican leaders who walked out of Vice President Joe Biden’s budget talks, as well as anyone in the process who refused to give up some of their demands in an effort to compromise. There are the members of the supercommittee whose failure to reach a compromise was so unsurprising that it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion. And then, of course, there was President Obama, who may not have super powers that can bring together the most divided political atmosphere in memory, but who was unable to fully use his executive role to reach the bipartisan deal our government so badly needs. After months of brinksmanship, failed commissions and near-government shutdowns, perhaps the biggest failure of leadership is that the people we elected to find a joint solution to our long-term financial strength and have thus far been incapable of doing so.

More from On Leadership:

Meet the 2011 Top American Leaders

Powerful women in Washington

The best leadership books of the year

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

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