Some combination of American and America West lost my luggage between Puerto Rico and Phoenix. Two days later it’s still M.I.A. That may be why I’m cranky. But it’s not why I literally teared up Friday afternoon (0929) as I began to speak to a techie customer gathering sponsored by Hexaware.

My raw emotions erupted because of one sentence I had just read in USA Today:

“I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened.”—Patricia Dunn, former Chairman, Hewlett-Packard, sworn testimony before the United States House of Representatives on 28 September 2006.

Forty autumns ago in Vietnam, a careless enlisted surveyor in my detachment was badly injured while we were out in bad-guy land trying to site a prospective landing strip. The sailor was in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason. Frankly, what he did was stupid. But as we Navy sorts with legal command responsibility say, “It happened on my watch. Therefore it’s my problem.” The rumor spread throughout the battalion that the kid was careless. I proactively went to my Commanding Officer’s hut, entered unbidden, stood at attention, and told him bluntly, “I f^&*ed up, Captain.” It was not a noble gesture on my part. It was as it should be: The preventable, as I saw it, accident had “happened on my watch.” It was therefore & unequivocally my responsibility. Period. No question. Why the hell else would my Marine Corps uncle, Lieutenant General H.W. Buse, Jr, bemedaled survivor of Guadalcanal and Korea, have sworn me in as Ensign T.J. Peters, USN, 5 months before?

I moved to a youthful Silicon Valley in 1970, and stayed 30 years. I was around for the founding, among others, of Apple and Sun. On one or more occasions I heard Steve Jobs or Scott McNealy say, in effect or precisely, “When we grow up we want to be like Hewlett-Packard.” Insanely competitive Scott was still saying it when HP became his principal rival. He was dismissive of HP’s technology compared to Sun’s—but still in awe of this seminal, defining Silicon Valley institution.

HP, in an ever crazier industry, made its full share of marketplace slips. But its character (HP’s true “core competence”) was our collective bellwether and fog-cutting lighthouse in a raging sea.

On September 28th that glorious era ended.

“I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened.” —Patricia Dunn, chairman.

Some are comparing the HP leaks investigation to Enron and Worldcom. On the one hand, that’s ridiculous. Tens of thousands of loyal employees were not left pension-free, for one thing. But on the other hand, the HP fiasco is worse. Enron and Worldcom were Johnnies-come-lately. While many of us admired their daring do, we sure as hell never thought of them as models of rectitude. That honor was left to HP and a tiny handful of others—e.g. Johnson & Johnson, UPS, Medtronics.

Bernie Ebbers reported to the Big House last week to pay for the Worldcom mess. He’ll probably die behind bars. Also last week, Andy Fastow was formally handed his sentence for masterminding the Enron crookedness. And with a resounding thud, HP fell from grace—departed the thin ranks of Big Business at its best.

Accuse me of histrionics if you will. HP hasn’t been “iconic” for a while now, I suppose. But, I contend, until last week, when the former Chairman denied responsibility and several others “took the Fifth,” the certifiable end to a Dynasty of Character & Excellence had not occurred.


Tom Peters posted this on October 2, 2006, in Leadership.
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