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  The Making It! Business Blog
by Nelson Davis

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
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THIS EDITION: TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY AND DEATH!

 These days we often hear people say they “take total responsibility for their actions.”  Those words frequently tumble out of the mouths of politicians when they’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar and realize they don’t have a plan “B” or plausible deniability for whatever it was. In corporate America the CEO might mumble the words just before activating a stack of stock options and leaving the premises to “heal” and count the money.

Here in Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa trotted out the “total responsibility” line when his illicit affair with a TV reporter became news. What does taking “total responsibility” really mean? Antonio Villaraigosa was obviously not responsible to his wife and family in all this. Since he presented himself as a devoted family man during the mayoral campaign, he was not exactly totally responsible to the truth. What do you think Antonio Villaraigosa meant by accepting total responsibility? So far in his case it seems to be punishable by being booed at various events around town. I think we have to come up with new parameters and definitions for accepting responsibility.

 Around the same time as the mayor’s folly, I read about the very tough times being had by China’s former chief drug and food safety watchdog. Whether he ever spoke the Chinese equivalent of “I take total responsibility” or not, I don’t know. But Zheng Xiaoyu, age 62 paid quite a price for having cozy relationships with about eight drug companies which resulted in tainted drugs and foods reaching the marketplace. Their courts idea of assigning responsibility was putting Zheng Xiaoyu to death for his transgressions. Now that is a pretty severe form of “accepting total responsibility.” Screw up badly and you die! Zheng Xiaoyu was convicted in May and his appeal was heard in June. Obviously Zheng Xiaoyu wasn’t allowed to languish on death row for years while trotting out a series of appeals. There have been similar stories out of South America and Africa. 

What if America’s heads of safety-critical agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, Food and Drug, and the Department of Defense faced similar jeopardy for gross dereliction of responsibilities? In the world of business Conrad Black of Hollister could be facing something more serious than fines and jail time for raiding his public company’s treasury. Hmmm. Can you imagine a job review form with a check box at the bottom labeled termination by death?  

Would we be ready for the level of truth that the threat of hanging or lethal injection might prompt? I’m reminded of the Jack Nicholson line from the film “A Few Good Men” when he said “You can’t handle the truth.” Could Don Rumsfeld have possibly survived nearly as long at the Department of Defense if a firing squad was the payoff for failure in Iraq? Historically America has set world standards in many areas of business and statesmanship. We may not want to match them, but it seems that some emerging countries are setting some harsh 21st century standards for “accepting total responsibility.”

Perhaps we should too…your thoughts?

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