"When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's too late to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp."
This classic management allegory describes the reactive management style that leads to disasters like the BP oil rig explosion. BP is dealing with the almost impossible task of capping a broken oil well deep in the ocean, and it's too late to remember that safety should have been its first priority.
When pressures for profit are intense, a management team often is divided along the lines of expediency versus long-term results, and those advocating expediency have a competitive advantage. They advance their careers by cutting corners and delivering faster results — usually without accident — by bypassing safety procedures they feel are costly and unnecessary. As they rise up the corporate ladder, they eventually affect major decisions; and when the odds catch up with them, their last big gamble results in catastrophe.
Management consultants always try to get managers to develop a culture that is proactive versus reactive. Reactive managers try to get a job done as fast and cheaply as possible. Their philosophy is that if bad, unintended consequences happen, well, "we'll just clean up the mess later."
On the other hand, proactive managers believe it is more cost effective to prevent developing problems from getting worse and to prevent foreseeable problems from occurring in the first place. They take the time to do a job right.
Of course, a proactive management philosophy goes well beyond long-term profit advantages. It affects human safety (mining procedures, handling toxic waste, airline operations), employee and investor financial welfare (Enron, Andersen Accounting, WorldCom), environmental protection (air pollution, the present oil rig disaster), and even the national economy (S&L crisis of the 1980s, the present economic meltdown).
This is when government becomes especially important. There is an ideological battle between those who are willing to assume great risks — usually to others — in order to realize short-term political or economic goals versus those who seek lasting solutions to society's problems.
Despite the record of massive corporate misdeeds, reactive politicians believe the benefits of an unregulated market outweigh possible bad consequences and assume that if the private sector creates a catastrophe, government should become involved. Proactive politicians, on the other hand, understand that the American corporation's only obligation is to its shareholders, and only governmental oversight can ensure the public interest is considered.
In the current BP situation, sanctimonious hypocrisy has reached a new, world-record high. The politicians who opposed government oversight of the energy industry are the very same ones who now criticize a proactive government's efforts to bring together the relevant parties to systematically deal with an unprecedented crisis.
When politicians promise to "get government out of your life," their hidden agenda is to maximize corporate profits by getting government out of corporations' lives. When they succeed in weakening government oversight and corporations create disasters that could have been prevented, they then demonize "government" in the eyes of voters when it doesn't quickly clean up the mess the private sector created.
It's about time voters realized that our democratically elected politicians are the only ones who have the legal responsibility to protect the public interest with regard to the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, including corporations. Count on it: Unnecessary disasters will happen in direct proportion to the extent to which government doesn't set reasonable standards, adequately monitor behaviors and require socially responsible results.
Charles M. Kelly, of Charlotte, N.C., is a retired management consultant. Send comments by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.