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A Fish Rots From the Head

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Rebekah Brooks reiterated this week in a letter to the Home Affairs Committee, responding to a request from its chair MP Keith Vaz that she could not have known about the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone. 'I want to be absolutely clear that as editor of News of the World I had no knowledge whatsoever of phone hacking in the case of Milly Dowler and her family, or in any other cases during my tenure,' she wrote.

With this statement she shed a light on the kind of leader she was when in post as editor of the News of the World.

The person at the top of any organisation has the responsibility for the big decisions - but effective leaders also set expectations through their lieutenants, their own behaviour and communications throughout the organisation that set the tone, climate and culture. When someone is faced with a decision, no matter how many levels away from the leader they are, the "culture" implicit and explicit should inform the call to make.

It is a principle implicit in the old saying "a fish rots from the head". When dysfunctional organisations or situations where there are systemic failings are studied - invariably a large proportion of the blame is placed at the feet of the person at the top. There are usually one or more of the following failings at play:

  • They knew about a situation and failed to act
  • They knew about a situation and their action failed
  • They were unable to shape and lead the organization in such a way the situation would never arise - regardless of whether they knew about specific instances or not
It is on this last point where her leadership may have been somewhat lacking. To be fair to Rebekah Brooks (six words you'll not read anywhere else I'll bet...) her rise was meteoric and she was a young editor in a hurry during her time in charge of the NoW - the finer points of how to make the best organization wide impact as the leader will not have been top of her agenda. And yet it is on this criteria that many executives of any age and length of experience fail.

She has been profiled as the consummate networker and schmoozer - but what of her leadership to set the agenda, strategy and way of working and her own management style that would have set clear expectations throughout the organisation?

Rebekah Brooks is not the first and certainly won't be the last young leader who has fallen foul over the wider demands of leadership and impact on the organization for which they are responsible. By claiming she knew nothing means we need to look higher up the chain to find the leadership capability that may have averted this mire. Ah yes, oh well...