The Opioid Crisis: A Failure of Accountable Leadership

The high-profile protests we’ve been seeing against companies involved in schemes to profit from the nation’s massive opioid epidemic — the most visible being the health-care giant Johnson and Johnson — have, I think, been focusing on the wrong end of the problem. They have been leaving out the issue of what accountable leadership actually looks like.

Make no mistake. People will be writing for decades to come about the legal and moral failures that launched the nation’s opioid epidemic, which has, at last count, claimed over 200,000 lives. Those lives lost, families destroyed, and communities devastated produced massive revenues for companies involved in the production, distribution, and sale of opioid painkillers that were meant to be administered by legitimate prescription only. Yet the drugs were prescribed and distributed illegally on a huge scale. There was a total lack of accountability.

So yes. The companies, institutions, and leaders involved in this epic scandal should make appropriate reparations. And yes. There is every reason to believe that the restitution and legal remedies that have been put forward up to this point are unlikely to even begin properly healing the wounds that families and society as a whole have suffered during this crisis. But we must be sure to address the critical question of how accountable leaders at other organizations can keep such a catastrophe from happening again. What made this crisis possible in the first place?

The answer, I believe, was a threefold failure of accountable leadership. Specifically, there was a failure to support stated values, a failure to commit to the truth, and a failure to make decisions according to the standard “It’s all of us.”

Three big leadership lessons emerge from this national tragedy.

LESSON ONE: ACCOUNTABLE LEADERS SUPPORT THE STATED VALUES. Do an online search for Johnson and Johnson’s values, and you will read that they are “committed” to “conducting business in ways that contribute positively to society.” Are they? Where is that showing up? Johnson and Johnson’s leadership paid lip service to this value and, over a long period of years, made business decisions that directly undermined it. Do not make that mistake. When you see evidence of a policy or a profit stream, that undermines your company’s values, look beyond short-term issues like revenue. Think in the long term. Accountable leaders ask questions like, “Where is this money coming from? How does this line of business tie in with our values?” When they see the money is coming from a source that conflicts with their values, they take action, even if doing so hurts in the short term. This is how you build a sustainable advantage in the marketplace over time: you make sure your company’s purpose connects to something beyond just fattening your own bottom line.

LESSON TWO: ACCOUNTABLE LEADERS COMMIT TO THE TRUTH. That means sharing exactly what is happening and why it is happening, even when — especially when — you discover a problem. The companies at the center of this scandal saw vast amounts of cash coming in the door and still insist that they had no role in creating the crisis. That defies logic and common sense. Johnson and Johnson launched a heavy promotional campaign that encouraged doctors to overprescribe painkillers. They are now pretending that that marketing campaign had nothing to do with the crisis that followed. Such denials do not pass the smell test. When you see a problem, if you are a truly accountable leader, you speak up about it. These leaders did not speak up when it was obviously time to do so. Make sure you do.

LESSON THREE: ACCOUNTABLE LEADERS COMMIT TO “IT’S ALL OF US.” Leaders who make this commitment let their employees, and the larger community, know that decisions are being made in the long-term best interests of the team, the company, and the community in which the company operates. There is no “me first” among accountable leaders. They communicate the message: “We fail together. We succeed together. We are all in this together.” Employees and consumers have not yet gotten that important message from the companies at the center of this scandal, and that needs to change. Make sure your team, your organization, and your community knows — by virtue of your actions — that you are totally committed to “It’s all of us.” When they know you are committed to them they will want to be committed to you.

Living all three of these commitments creates accountability. Accountable leaders always make decisions that support and align with these commitments. Do you?


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