Of the many, many lessons there are to be learned from the Flint water crisis, some of the most instructive ones are in leadership. They are provided courtesy of Gov. Rick Snyder and, unfortunately, they are all lessons in how to not lead.
These lessons are the reasons Gov. Snyder was voted “most disappointing leader” in a Fortune magazine poll. Not coincidentally, some are related to communication. What can we learn from him?
Bad news is not your enemy
Back in the 1990s, self-help business authors began to attitude-wash business language. Along with crap books such as Who Moved My Cheese, it was part of an effort to convince people that if they only brought a positive attitude to whatever nightmare they faced, everything would be fine.
The most laughable part of this trend, for me, was seeing how corporations virtually banned the use of the word “problem.” “Don’t call it a ‘problem’,” they said, “call it a ‘challenge’.” (Notwithstanding that the very definition of “problem” is something to be solved.)
From this came corporate slogans that became, in some places, mantras: “Positive Mental Attitude,” “Quality Performance Starts with a Positive Attitude,” “Negativity is for Losers” and, in the Snyder administration’s case “Relentless Positive Action.”
This went hand-in-hand with an older dictum: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” Not only is this dangerous, it creates a culture that has become common in corporate America — in which the prime directive is “Don’t let bad news get to the boss.”
Theoretically, this is to “empower” employees at every level to make decisions and “overcome challenges” — or, as sane people would say it, “solve problems.” It goes hand-in-hand with “accountability” — which, in corporate America, is the buzzword that has replaced “blame.” The idea is to allow employees to make decisions knowing that, even if they make a mistake, management will back them up — helping them learn and grow from the mistake.
In reality, it’s the standard plot of most sitcom episodes — or a tragedy such as Flint. A mistake is made, and everyone along the line bumbles along trying to fix it before word gets to the boss.
In the case of Flint, Gov. Snyder’s staff tried to “handle” the situation and worked hard to keep anything that wasn’t “relentlessy positive” from the boss. They were creative, from asking Flint’s water staff to falsify test results to dismissing or discrediting Flint residents, its mayor, an EPA employee and a U.S. Congressman. All the while, they told the boss — and the public — “don’t worry, everything is fine.”
From the chain of emails, it would appear that the one way they didn’t handle it was the way they should have: as early as possible, let the boss know there’s a problem to be solved.
Many people simply don’t believe that Gov. Snyder could have been kept in the dark as long as he maintains he was. I have spoken to people who know Gov. Snyder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and say he’s not like that. But I’ve seen so much of this phenomenon in corporate America I’m sure it played a role here.
The worst listener in the room
Another disturbing late-20th-century business trend was the creation of the cult of the charismatic CEO. While we can debate his charisma level, Gov. Snyder exemplifies one of the greatest weaknesses of those cult leaders. As Nolan Finley put it in the Detroit News last month, the governor sincerely believes he is the smartest guy in the room — no matter who else is in it.
That’s a dangerous belief.
I’ve been in the room with Gov. Snyder, and at least on one occasion when he was definitely not the smartest guy there. (And, just to be clear, neither was I.) But he talked like he was. And, more importantly, he made the mistake people always make when they think, “Nobody knows more than I do.”
He didn’t listen to the people who actually do.
Confronted with reports of bad water from Flint residents, of problems from Flint’s mayor, of warnings from EPA, General Motors, physicians and water experts, Gov. Snyder didn’t listen to them. Why should he? He was the smartest guy in the room, and his DEQ experts were way smarter than the people of Flint.
Faced, a few years ago, with more than a dozen mayors from all over the state talking about deeply flawed systemic issues in municipal finance in Michigan, he didn’t listen to them, either. Why should he? He’s a CPA, an expert on finance. He and his staff of bureaucrats were way smarter than any of those mayors.
One of the great dying skills of American business — and politics — is listening. There’s an old saying that no salesman ever listened his way out of a sale; I doubt that any politician ever listened her way out of a vote. Yet people who believe they are the smartest people in the room generally do very little listening.
Which means that, generally, no matter how smart they are … they don’t get any smarter.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was this: Any time you feel like you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Find out whom you can learn from, start asking questions, and listen.
Hire for competence, not loyalty
One of the great tragedies of democracy is what happens when executives are elected. They appoint their staff. Many of those staff positions are used as rewards for people who helped the executive get elected. The rest? The first priority is usually party affiliation and/or philosophical agreement and the second loyalty. Oh, and if you’re competent, that’s a nice bonus.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t hurt much. Most government executive departments will be filled with career employees who can carry out the nuts-and-bolts work regardless of the competence level of the boss. To some degree, that’s also true in business.
But sometimes it hurts badly, and Gov. Snyder’s choice to head the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is an excellent example. Dan Wyant, the man who headed the agency charged with safeguarding the public from environmental hazards has a bachelor’s degree in food systems and an MBA in finance.
He had experience heading a state department – agriculture, which would be a little more in line with his training. And then he worked for several years as the president of a foundation that provides second-stage funding to entrepreneurs. He was director of legislative affairs for Gov. John Engler and a marketing manager for Ralston Purina.
So why would a person with zero credentials in environmental science or natural resources, whose most recent experience was economic development, be named to head DEQ? The answer was inadvertently provided by former Snyder chief of staff Dennis Muchmore in a Dec. 29, 2015 email bemoaning Wyant’s resignation. “It will be hard to find a replacement trusted by the business community.”
In interviews upon taking the job, Wyant talked about the DEQ’s role in “economic gardening” – encouraging economic development without tax incentives. Gov. Snyder’s choice of Wyant was based not on competence, but on his loyalty to a bedrock of the administration’s philosophy: Government regulation is a barrier to economic growth.
This led to the culture of “minimum requirements to achieve technical compliance” cited by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force. This was probably exacerbated by the qualifications of the “experts,” as Gov. Snyder has referred to them, on the DEQ staff.
Michigan has licensing requirements for people who operate municipal water systems. There are three categories of licensure – full treatment of water, partial treatment of water and distribution only – with five levels in each category. Each comes with its own continuing education requirements.
Stephen Busch, district supervisor for municipal water systems, is a certified operator, but only for partial treatment and distribution. Mike Prysby, MDEQ’s district engineer for municipal water systems, and Patrick Cook, who signed off on the permits for Flint’s conversion, are both listed as licensed water system operators. But they appear to be “courtesy” licenses. They don’t actually hold certifications, and neither has any recorded CE credits.
By comparison, Mike Glasgow, the Flint operator who protested that Flint wasn’t ready and raised the flag about corrosion control before being shut down by DEQ, holds the highest level of certification for fully treated water. Unfortunately, the “experts” at DEQ thought they knew better.
It’s not hard to instill loyalty in a person who’s highly competent. It’s a lot harder to build competency in a loyal but unprepared person. Yet Gov. Snyder, like many business and government leaders, opted for the latter. With disastrous consequences.