HSBC could learn leadership from nurse's death

Jacintha Saldanha death. BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE. Undated family handout photo issued by the Metropolitan Police of Jacintha Saldanha who is thought to have committed suicide. Issue date: Saturday December 8, 2012. Jacintha was found dead near the King Edward VII hospital in central London two days after she was working on the switchboard when Australian 2DayFM DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian obtained intimate details about Duchess of Cambridge's condition by posing as the Queen and Prince Charles while the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for a severe form of morning sickness at the hospital. See PA story ROYAL Hospital. Photo credit should read: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder. URN:15335026 Metropolitan Police

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch)Jacintha Saldanha was the nurse on duty at a London hospital when two Australian DJs called, with one pretending to be the Queen of England. All she did was put the call through to another nurse who disclosed information about the Duchess of Cambridge, who is pregnant and was suffering from morning sickness. In the days after the call was revealed as a hoax, Saldanha died in an apparent suicide.

By contrast,when HSBC was found to have laundered money for drug cartels, sent money to Iran in violation of economic sanctions and broken the law on multiple fronts, its executives avoided going to jail and agreed to a $1.9 billion fine that, ultimately, will be paid by the shareholders. The bank's CEO at the time that these infractions occurred, Stephen Green, still sits in Britain's House of Lords as minister of state for trade and industry.

The difference in ethical standards could hardly be more stark. One lone nurse feels a crushing responsibility for a minor infraction. One chief executive allows others -- the company, employees, shareholders -- to suffer the consequences of his irresponsibility.

Not that this ethos is confined to HSBC. Similar comparisons could be drawn with the financial executives who led their companies into oblivion during the housing crash, such as Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain and ex-Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld, as well as Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld, who promised Cadbury workers that she wouldn't close factories after a merger and then promptly did just that. Or take the CEOs of any number of companies, such as Amazon, Google, Starbucks and General Electric, who claim to be fine upstanding citizens but whose companies pay strangely little in the way of taxes.

One can't avoid being struck by the very different standards of integrity and ethics.

What I find especially moving about the tragedy of Saldanha's death is that, by all accounts, no one at the King Edward VII hospital chastised or reprimanded her in any way. Her supervisor was supportive. What that means is that her sense of responsibility came from within, not without. In my experience as a CEO, while Saldanha's response was extreme, it was not unusual. Just about everyone who has ever worked for me has shown a profound sense of responsibility, eagerness to own their duties and to solve problems. They always wanted to do a good job and were distressed when, for whatever reason, they couldn't to live up to their own standards. They really did care. But that is not what we have seen, on the whole, from leaders of major businesses.

Instead, all around me I hear bosses worrying about employees who don't pull their weight. But that isn't the problem. People want to do a good job; they'd prefer to do a great job and they're gutted, demoralized and disappointed when they can't. For them, work is personal, and great leadership recognizes that and creates the conditions in which they can do their very best.

It isn't the junior employees we need to worry about; it's their bosses. The problem with power is that it often undermines a sense of personal responsibility. Corporate responsibility becomes a department, not a personal characteristic. What business leader can you point to today with the same compunction and sense of ownership as a single, solitary nurse who made a simple mistake?

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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