Boeing’s Tragic Failure of Accountability…The Absent Board

There has been a tragic failure of accountable leadership at Boeing. But the accountability failure I am talking about is not the failure of a single individual.

I am willing to bet that what you have been reading about in the headlines is how, in the aftermath of the 737 Max crisis, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg just lost his job. Unfortunately, his story is a story of unaccountable leadership.

It is the story of how a whistleblower at Boeing tried and failed to get his superiors to do the right thing about potentially serious software problems even before the 737 Max experienced problems in commercial flight. It is the story of how those concerns were shelved, which says something about the lack of accountability in the culture at Boeing, and, by definition, about Muilenburg. It is the story of how Muilenberg, the CEO, certainly had all the information he needed by October of 2018, after the first fatal crash of the 737 Max had killed hundreds of people, to recommend that the plane be grounded. It is the story of how he failed to be accountable and make that recommendation, and how a second crash, in which the software glitch the whistleblower had been worried about once again played a major role, took the lives of hundreds of more people.

That these events were failures of an accountable leader’s commitment to telling the truth…to create and support a workplace where employees can feel safe raising tough issues…and to protect the good reputation of the company is now beyond debate. At some point along the line, Muilenburg started focusing on making money and stopped focusing on Boeing’s stated values.

As it happens, those stated values are clear. Had they been driving the decision-making at Boeing, the company would have averted the crisis in which it now finds itself. The Boeing website tells us exactly what the Boeing values are: “Do the right thing, every time, no exceptions.” Later, the same paragraph reads: “Our robust ethics and compliance program is focused on integrity, respect, accountability, and inclusion.” Unfortunately, integrity, accountability, and a commitment to do the right thing were not driving Muilenburg when he learned that there were problems with his company’s airplane. When people around him realized that he was minimizing and explaining away serious problems, they had to know there would be repercussions for trying to shine a spotlight on those problems. Some brave people at Boeing spoke up anyway.

It is only when the leader lives the high standard of their stated values that the values become real and only then is everyone inspired to live those same values. This is how to build a positive organizational culture based on your values.

But Muilenburg’s failure to live the values is not the story I want you to focus on.

We need to be clear: the accountable leadership failure at Boeing is not Muilenberg’s alone. It belongs to the entire board of directors, which was tasked with evaluating his work. That board of directors, I believe, is where the real tragedy lies.

Why is the board’s role here tragic? Because the board did not do its job. They had clear evidence that Muilenburg, who served as both CEO and chairman of the board, was not living the values. Whether or not the CEO of a company should also be the chairman of the board is a question for another day. The point is, they eventually removed Muilenburg as chairman of the board, but they left him in as CEO for another year. What message does such a decision send? And what were the consequences? And what are we to make of that same board of directors when it negotiates–as Boeing is now said to be negotiating–a severance package with its former CEO that will likely run into the tens of millions of dollars?

At some point, the lawyers on various sides will come to an agreement about exactly what to call Muilenburg’s departure, but I think any fair-minded person knows what just happened at Boeing. Regardless of what the lawyers end up saying, Muilenburg was fired for cause. Paying him a bonus is morally wrong, and it sends a terrible signal both internally and externally.

Muilenburg made a long series of unaccountable decisions, decisions that led to an entirely preventable crisis that betrayed Boeing’s values, cost hundreds of human lives and did untold damage to Boeing’s reputation and its organizational culture. The board let it all happen. And that is the tragedy.

I realize the 737 Max story is a complex one. Its moral, however, is simple. If you are a leader, you must never forget that you are always accountable to someone else. When a CEO loses sight of the values that guide the business, that must be remedied by the board of directors. They must step up and tell the CEO, loud and clear, that the CEO is not doing the right thing. And if the behavior does not change, the board must not take half measures but must fire the CEO.

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