Why the ones in power should be held accountable

Jeremy Hobson Dec 3, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: If I had to come up with a word for the month we just had, it might be “accountability.” Think about it: the leaders of Greece and Italy stepped down because of public anger. The coach of Penn State was forced out because of the child abuse scandal there. And there are calls for the University of California Davis chancellor to leave office after police pepper sprayed student protestors.

For more on the subject of accountability, let’s bring in Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. He heads the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at the Yale School of Management. Good morning.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld: Good morning.

Hobson: First of all, are you surprised by all of these people at the top of these organizations being asked to step down because of trouble far down the chain?

Sonnenfeld: No, not at all. That’s the whole idea of accountability. That’s why the great sociologist Weber created the notion of bureaucracy — which he intended it to be as a good word — as a notion of justice. Instead of just capricious bullies making random decisions, you have a system of accountability. That’s why somebody rises up and is paid the big bucks to be the boss, is they have to create a system where there is that accountability.

Hobson: We’ve got this situation in University of California, Davis, where there was this pepper spray incident; a couple of police officers pepper-sprayed some Occupy protesters. And now there are calls — not for the police chief — but the chancellor of the university there to resign.

Sonnenfeld: Well you just wonder what her role was and what are the orders that were given to them, and you wonder how police captains can take this on with their own authority, or the negligence of coaches and athletic directors in the other situations — without the president knowing. And they also have an obligation to be diligent, that this negligence is no excuse.

Hobson: Do you then risk micromanagement if you have this person at the top who’s very worried about what might happen underneath them?

Sonnenfeld: There’s nothing more important that the university manages than its reputation, its image, its moral character. What else would be more macromanaging? What’s more important — the school colors?

Hobson: Is there a difference in how you handle something like this, or the responsibility that is given to the head of the university versus a corporation or some other kind of organization?

Sonnenfeld: Yes, it’s scarier because you’re set up as a pillar of integrity in society, number one. Number two, they have young people there. And number three, they also have police power. Very few, if any, corporations really have the delegated state authority of police forces to do some pretty horrendous things. All three of these qualities are I think what make a university president on heightened alert. This is what they should be learning instead of hold more football pep rallies.

Hobson: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld heads the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at the Yale School of Management. Mr. Sonnenfeld, thanks so much for joining us.

Sonnenfeld: Thank you.

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