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Leadership lessons from Governor Chris Christie and the bridge lane closing scandal

April 30th, 2015
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The “Bridge” crisis swirling around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become a pivotal test of his leadership skills to survive a major threat to his promising political career.

The events before and after the bridge lane closings and the actions of Governor Christie and members of his inner circle of advisors offers several examples of good and bad leadership and management practices.

Here are the examples of good leadership and management:

Surround yourself with loyal, committed and smart people – The credit for Governor Christie’s political success as a Republican in a majority Democratic Party state must go in no small measure to the skills of his senior staff. What was true in political life is also relevant in the executive suite or a small business.

Delegate responsibility to subordinates and do not interfere – A state governor or a CEO cannot be effective unless they delegate authority to their management team. In Governor Christie’s own words: “I am not a micromanager.” He repeatedly emphasized during his recent public atonements for the bridge lane closings that he willingly delegates functional responsibility to his senior staff, because he trusted them. Notwithstanding published reports from several sources that he is a micromanager over every aspect of the policies and actions coming out of his office, Governor Christie is correct. A leader in business or politics needs to have trusted and competent managers to handle the details, so that he/she can lead.

Accept responsibility in front of the world when something big goes wrong – Governor Christie has been publicly apologizing non-stop over the past two weeks for the actions of his staff. He said repeatedly “I take responsibility for their actions” to stem the growing outrage about disclosures that his senior staff had arranged the bridge lane closings during rush hours as a political payback to the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, NJ for not endorsing Governor Christie for a second term. Christie deserves praise for being very visible while taking a lot of heat and doing damage control to a situation that was spiraling out of control. He was apologetic, open and not defensive. He projected leadership and determination to make amends for mistakes made under his watch.

Hold subordinates accountable – Governor Christie told his constituents that he accepted responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. He also severely punished staff members who had direct involvement in closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge during rush hour. Two of Christie’s closest senior aides were fired and two his appointees to the New Jersey-New York Bridge Authority were forced to resign. He showed that even the most senior and trusted staff members would be held accountable for their actions. Governor Christie denied any prior knowledge of his staff’s actions and expressed anger at having been misled by trusted subordinates. If evidence surfaces that shows Christie was indeed in the information loop on the bridge lane closings, it will be interesting to see what actions the Governor takes to hold himself accountable.

And here are the examples of bad leadership and management:

Failure to heed flashing warning lights that a crisis was on the horizon – The immediate loud public uproar over the bridge lane closings during rush hour was a missed signal that a crisis in the making. In hindsight, Governor Christie’s decision to accept his staff’s explanations for the incident was a mistake. Perhaps, because his reelection campaign was in full swing, he didn’t want did deeper and turn the bridge-closing incident into a troublesome campaign issue. Instead, the Governor chose to avoid rather than engage a crisis in the making. In business, a CEO that fails to decisively address looming crises on the horizon is putting his/her company at risk for financial, legal and reputational problems, not to mention his or her career.

Fostering an organizational culture that communicates to subordinates that crossing ethical boundaries is acceptable – The voters expect that their governor and his/her administration will carry out the functions of government in the best interest of the people and to uphold the highest ethical standards. On the other hand, the voters are under no illusions about political campaigns. They are rough and tumble affairs. Nonetheless, the voters still want political campaigns to be conducted in a legal and ethical manner. The actions of Governor Christie’s staff crossed ethical lines during the election campaign. Revelations about the actions of Governor Christie’s senior staff in the bridge lane closings and subsequent allegations of political bullying by other New Jersey mayors suggests to the reasonable person that unethical behavior is acceptable in the Christie administration. Whether the Governor knowingly condoned unethical behavior, or just looked the other way, he needs to take immediate steps to adjust his administration’s organizational culture or be viewed as guilty as his fired senior aides.

Trust But Verify – President Ronald Reagan used these words to characterize the post-Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union as policies of mutually assured destruction were exchanged for cooperation. The commitment to peace and friendship between Soviet President Gorbachev and President Reagan, and later with President George H.W. Bush, was undeniable. Nonetheless, the American and Russian policies that led to disarmament had built in measures for verifying that each side was living up to their end of the agreement. There is little doubt that Governor Christie and his senior staff shared a distinct bond of trust. Governor Christie’s error was to sit in a cocoon of his own making. By his own admission, Governor Christie said he relied on his staff for information on the bridge lane issue. A political and business leader needs to have third-party sources to act as reality checks and, yes, to verify what trusted senior advisors are telling him. In the future, Governor Christie would do well to follow the advice of one of his political heroes, Ronald Reagan.

The bridge lane closing incident has resulted in ongoing state and federal investigations into the actions of Governor Christie’s staff and to determine what Governor Christie knew and when. So far, Governor Christie has demonstrated good leadership and a willingness to acknowledge mistakes. The next real test of leadership for Governor Christie will come when potentially damaging disclosures surface during the upcoming state and federal investigations. Stay tuned.

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