More Blame!
(This Time, I’m Really Pissed Off.)

Friday a week ago, I had the honor of giving the Olin lecture on alumni weekend at Cornell. It’d been a long time since I’d been back, and I was taken aback by the beauty, mostly unmarred by new construction, of the Ithaca NY campus.

But in a way that was the least of it. The powers that be (president David Skorton) arranged for me a lengthy tour of the engineering school by the Dean of Engineering and the Dean of Civil Engineering. (I am a Cornell civil engineering grad.) Not only was I taken aback by the extraordinary work going on, which was mostly beyond my comprehension, but by the discipline and tradition of engineering of which I am the smallest part. The experience bordered on the mystical; though I went on to get business degrees and make my name, such as it is, around management, I realized some odd genetic-like tug to my engineering roots—it in fact felt very good, a coming home of sorts.

But it also got me thinking about the Gulf oil spill. (It’s hard to go more than a few minutes without that disaster intruding on one’s thoughts.) There is more than enough blame to go around from BP and hapless Tony Hayward to Deepwater Horizon to Halliburton to the pathetic dis-incentivized federal regulators.

And I want to pile on.

In my recent book, The Little BIG Things, one item, #56, in the section on leadership was titled “Sacred Trust,” and it began like this:

“As I see it, anyone who takes on any leadership job, minor or major, assumes no less than a … Sacred Trust. I know that’s extreme language. But I stand by it. This sacred trust is all about what organizations are all about: the professional (and, to some extent, personal) development of people. Sure, the boss’s job is to ‘get the job done,’ and done effectively. But ‘boss-hood’ primarily entails an abiding responsibility for the people under your charge. …”

Leadership is a sacred trust. As is the practice of law. And medicine. And any of the other recognized professions.

Including engineering.

Certified engineers, like certified docs and lawyers, mostly take oaths to live up to the responsibilities of their disciplines. Rights and responsibilities: These pros have the right to declaim with some degree of certitude about their discipline, and/but the responsibility to ensure that the boundaries of said certitude are not violated.

Well, in my newfound/renewed ardor for engineering, I also find myself beset with newfound anger-outrage at numerous engineers employed by BP, et al. (Many an “al.” it would appear.)

Outrage not at “BP engineers,” but outrage at Arthur N. Smith [fictitious name], certified and licensed engineer. And doubtless dozens and dozens, probably hundreds, of his cohorts.

BP seems to have gotten it wrong on a dozen dozen dozen engineering dimensions. In the name of cost control or whatever. I don’t give a shit about the cost control issues, real as I know they are. I give a hundred shits about the fact that Arthur Engineer and Ralph Engineer and Mary Engineer, cross-pressures notwithstanding (that’s life), abrogated their professional responsibilities as … individuals. Arthur and Ralph and Mary are probably good parents—but professionally they screwed their fellow citizens to a fare-thee-well.

And I’m pisssed off.

Very pissed off.

Arthur and Ralph and Mary have bills to pay. And the economy is tough. And their bosses, responding to their bosses, doubtless did put merciless pressure on them.

Hence my empathy is high.

But in the end I am appalled. They have cost us lives and economic and environmental damage of epic proportion. Because they lacked the will and integrity to blow their professional whistles and stand up for the discipline to which they have sworn allegiance.

They are (individually) a disgrace to the great tradition of engineering of which I am the smallest part. So I’m taking this personally.

This disaster, regardless of certain companies’ headquarters addresses, occurred in the United States. Among nations, we try to live to a higher standard of individual accountability than most. We are (properly, for the most part) known as an individualistic nation—it has been our strength among strengths. Back to: rights and responsibilities. Our individualism gives moral and other supports (effectively, “rights”) to our peerless entrepreneurial behavior, for example. But along with those peerless rights of individualism come an equally profound set of responsibilities. If you are encouraging me to “do my thing,” you are also making it clear that the practice thereof is, unequivocally, a form of “sacred responsibility.”

Well, my beloved engineers-of-the-Gulf, it was not only HTH, Hapless Tony Hayward, who let us down. It was you engineers as well one at a time, name by name. In fact my fury at you is stronger than my fury at Hayward. After all, he was merely a corporate shill—you are professionals, the latest in a magnificent tradition that you have now sullied.

For shame.

NB: Am I exceedingly harsh in my judgment here? Perhaps. But, upon substantial reflection, I think not.

Tom Peters posted this on June 21, 2010, in News.
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