Another View: Lessons from fallen stars

Mimi Browning

If you think the recent behavior of Michael, Martha, Howard and Darlene is irrelevant to federal managers, think again. The rise and fall of celebrity executives illustrates that people in leadership positions are under more scrutiny and sanctions than usual.

Executives have been reprimanded for using foul language, pointing fingers, demonstrating abusive behavior and making seemingly innocent quips. Ignorance of the law or the changing social standards is no excuse. To help federal managers navigate today's murky waters, here are applicable lessons learned from recent fallen stars.

Ethics do matter. The public and the media hold civil servants to a high standard. The public-service ethos is a genuine trust that most federal managers really do uphold. They know that they live in professional glass houses and any misstep, no matter how innocent, will be quickly noticed.

Special causes for concern are conflict-of-interest situations. Knowing when to provide government information to sources outside government is both an art and science. Likewise, as managers leave government for the private sector, they should be knowledgeable of revolving-door laws that apply to job searches and employment.

The lesson? Don't do it or ask the lawyers for advice.

Watch your words and behavior. Ethical infractions, unless they break the law, will most likely result in reprimands; indecent or egregious behavior can get you fired.

Two examples:
  • During a class break at a government facility, several men, in what they thought was a lighthearted moment, accessed the Web site of an international playgirl. One of the women in the class complained.

The men were fired despite the fact that this was their first such offense.
  • A senior executive, known for belittling subordinates, was asked to retire'and did'two years before he planned to do so. Top management wanted to send a strong signal to the workforce that abusive behavior would not be tolerated.

The lesson? Keep your mouth zipped in the gray area.

Consider servant leadership. Servant leadership is checking your ego at the door and dealing with people as equals while gently asserting your knowledge and authority.

Why do it? Such a leadership style can positively differentiate you from your command-and-control-centric peers and possibly diffuse employee anger and jealousy. You may even become more productive, healthier and less of a target. Very rarely do staff, juries or the media take down a trusted, people-oriented leader. Arrogant, imperious executives are given much less slack.

The lesson? Put the people you work with and your mission before yourself.

Lastly, I'd like to say a sad farewell to behaviors of the past that were fun, innocent and, in today's environment, totally out of line.

In memory only, let us envision holiday parties starting at 9 a.m., with ribald behavior and the strong smell of bourbon in government corridors; a free day off on your birthday; four-hour lunches from which few returned; the annual reproduction of personal income tax returns on government copiers; and flirting.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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