08/01/2011 11:01 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

Rupert and That old Responsibility Thing

For over twenty years I've worked with corporate leaders all over the world, helping them understand the nuances of power and organizational effectiveness. The model I work with is called Transforming Integrative (TI) Leadership, a methodology that makes some pretty audacious claims. Things like, When you intelligently make the organization's people your primary objective and not merely the means to an objective (like profits, say), you'll run circles around your competition, effortlessly -- your profits and the organization's vitality will soar.

It's an approach to leading that's built on a simple but unflinching understanding of responsibility that says we are the causal agents in our lives. It goes something like this: "My life is as it is because I have caused it to be that way." And my causality is not something that's up for a debate. It's just what is so, a basic, logical cause-and-effect reality.

When it comes to leadership, this whole causal-agency thing becomes dramatically and unavoidably magnified, and here, too, it's not a debatable matter. It's just what's so: the leader sets the tone, the philosophy of governance, the attitude among senior management, determines the type of people in top leadership roles, what is and isn't acceptable in how they interact with employees, customers, the community, and society at large. Bottom line -- the leader establishes, in a real sense is, the business culture. When Harry Truman famously said, "The buck stops here," he wasn't showing great nobility. He was simply being honest about reality, just telling the truth. (That we find the need to make so much of his statement probably says more about us than it does about him.)

So as I watched Rupert Murdoch the other day, answering questions before the British Parliament, I was astounded, naively perhaps, that with a straight face he could deny responsibility for the scandal that now threatens his vast media empire. I realized, of course, that I was witnessing a business leader who epitomizes the old business paradigm, accurately referred to as the "transactional" model-where profit (and power) are the singular end and, any way you slice it, people are the means to that end.

What I observed was a charming, seemingly brilliant man, perhaps the shrewdest executive in the fourth estate, surely the most politically powerful media mogul in recent memory. And there he was, declaring, without the least hint of irony, that he wasn't responsible for the crimes committed by his now-defunct newspaper, News of the World, one that until a few days ago was the largest in the U. K. Wasn't this the same man who, just days before, had taken out full-page ads in various British papers, declaring in bold print, "I'm sorry"? So I was a bit confused. He is sorry -- full-page-ad-sorry - -for something for which he is not responsible? "Are you kidding?" I wondered aloud in my empty office. Forget about its logical absurdity, or the seeming temerity of it all. Assuming for the moment that this wasn't an ill-advised stratagem (he certainly seemed sincere) could he actually believe what was coming out of his mouth? Was that possible? How could a man of his incomparable savvy and accomplishment believe...?

And then I landed with a thud, back in the real world of denial and self-dishonesty. I remembered what I encounter almost every day in the business world that passes for responsibility. Very bright executives and their equally intelligent followers all across the globe fall into this same, ever-so-human trap with predictable regularity: it's the trap of playing the victim, of actually believing they are the victim.

It's an insidious and ultimately powerless game, and we all play it from time to time. The less self-aware we are the more we incline in its direction. When it's convenient, when it's something that feels good, like success, say, we may be fine with our causality. But when it's unpleasant, especially when it's a complex situation and there are others in it up to their eyeballs with us, we eagerly look for ways to avoid the suffering, to feel better about ourselves. And so we cleverly or ineptly point the finger out there. We look to blame someone or something else.

I say it's a "powerless" way to show up in life because as long as we deny our causality, we have zero chance of fixing the problem. As long as it remains someone else's doing, the best we can do is feel bad and bemoan our condition. Yet when we own our causal agency from a place of responsibility, first, we don't indulge in beating ourselves up, and second, we are able to investigate and possibly discover how it is that we may have set things up to be as they are. Then and only then we can do something about it with any integrity and effectiveness.

But the victim routine is not just a powerless gambit, it's a dangerous one. As long as we deny our responsibility, the problems not only go unfixed, they continue to worsen until they finally explode -- which is precisely what happened with the collapse of the world economy in 2008. And this astonishingly non-responsible behavior continues on today -- just listen to the Wall Street banking powers, who would have us believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the global financial collapse merely amounts to the work of a few bad apples. Even the modest financial reforms recently enacted are wrong, wrong, wrong, they demand, because they didn't do it!

The buck stopped with Harry because that's where the buck stopped, whether Truman said so or not. It was and is the nature of reality, irrespective of one's opinion. Is Murdoch responsible? Of course he is. He no more gets to vote on the matter than he gets to vote on gravity. News Corp is his remarkably successful corporation, from which he derives such wealth and influence. He and no one else created its culture. Even if Rebekah Brooks, the now-disgraced leader of NotW, wasn't like a daughter to him (and evidently she was), she was the CEO of one of his largest print holdings, for heaven's sake. And remember, Mr. Murdoch has always been known for creating a highly transactional, take-no-prisoners climate. Anyone out there think Fox News plays by the traditional rules of broadcast journalism? Murdoch's been praised for his effective ruthlessness and seems to have enjoyed the famous fear he so deftly wields.

But Murdoch's responsibility or victimhood is not the important question. The real question is Will we learn something from his remarkable and obvious display of non-responsibility? Will we learn to ask ourselves how we have set things up in our collective economic lives such that we are in the continuing financial mess we are in? Perhaps if we can own the fact that it really is our mess we'll learn something. Perhaps we'll discover that there's something about how we've exercised capitalism for the past several decades that has caused our excruciating state of affairs. Perhaps then we'll actually consider that there may be other ways - better, smarter, less transactional ways -- to deploy democratic capitalism. Indeed as the transforming integrative approach suggests, there is something bigger at stake here than mere shareholder value (or in Murdoch's case, bigger than saving face), something that transcends -- but includes -- the shareholder.

If we can somehow learn to ask smarter, and, yes, truly responsible questions, perhaps then, ironically enough, Rupert the Non-Responsible will end up being the one showing us the way, even if by accident. Wouldn't that be something?