What Corporate Leaders Can Learn from Navy Sex Tape Incident

Monday, January 10th, 2011

US Navy Capt. Owen Honors was relieved of his command. Adm. John C. Harvey Jr. said that the sexually charged videos “calls into question his character and completely undermines his credibility to continue to serve effectively in command.” (NYT 1/5/11) This is especially sad since sailors, in many ways, seem to respect Capt. Honors.

Just as the USS Enterprise is about to leave for Afghanistan, the Navy must find a new commanding officer. That’s not easy. And it leaves an impression that the Navy never learned from the Tailhook scandal. And it seems Capt. Honors’ career is all but over.

It didn’t have to be that way. Sailors expressed their discomfort with these videos but apparently no one listened. As an executive from Harley Davidson once said about its declining reputation among bike riders back in the 70s, “the writing was on the wall, but we thought it was a forgery.”

Corporate leaders could learn from this incident.  The writing is often on the wall but leaders either refuse to read it, or they surround themselves with people who filter the news for them. When people’s serious concerns can’t be heard, organizations miss opportunities to address concerns, or it appears that the company supports all manner of wrongful acts – discrimination, unfair treatment of workers, environmental insensitivity. And that list goes on.

For the past thirty some years I have worked with corporate leaders and managers. The better ones know that they must encourage bad news. They know that people are reluctant to tell the emperor that he or she has no clothes on. (We all know the fate of whistle blowers, and it isn’t pretty.) So they make sure people know they want to hear the unvarnished truth.

Here are four things that set them apart.

  1. They make themselves available. They get out of the executive suite and wander around. They know that people are not going to speak candidly in a public meeting, so they stick around after presentations and meetings and just hang out.
  2. In my book, Why Don’t You Want What I Want? (Bard Press 2002), I suggested that leaders have coffee with Joe (or Jo). These are people who will tell the truth as they see it. The Joes of the world don’t seem to understand the significance of the phrase “career limiting move.”
  3. They dig for even more information to find out just how serious the problem is.
  4. They act quickly and decisively to correct the problem. (And they never shoot the messenger.)

The US Navy could have nipped the problem in the bud a few years ago. If they had followed those four simple steps, the public probably would never have heard of Capt. Honors in relation to these videos. Perhaps other organizations will learn something from this incident.