On February 10, we learned that Brian Williams had been suspended by NBC news for six months without pay following the revelation that he provided false information regarding a 2003 wartime incident in Iraq. His case made as much news as many of the stories he and his colleagues regularly reported. While the circumstances are unique, there’s a vital lesson here for any organization facing what I call “big shot” misbehavior. In essence, it’s that conduct involving a senior leader which not only violates its standards and, more to the point its values, but can also deal a fatal – or at least grievous – blow to his or her enterprise’s brand and reputation. Business, compliance and other leaders routinely assess potential harms arising out of legal exposure. It’s harder and, yet perhaps more critical, in today’s world of instantaneous communications that they more generally assess the business and reputational risk of leader misdeeds, including those which may not directly violate regulatory prohibitions.
Williams anchored NBC’s Nightly News, the nation’s number one rated major news broadcast. In sports, an “anchor” is typically the fastest and most reliable performer. The word connotes trusted performance. At the same time, “anchor” has another meaning. It’s the name for the device which falls to the bottom of the ocean to secure a vessel at sea. Here, the term for his position is ironic and instructive.
NBC faced a harsh choice. If it did not take serious action against Williams whose ultimate return is apparently still under consideration, it would have tainted the meaning in credibility of the network anchor role in the context in which it is normally referenced. However, by removing Williams, NBC risked a loss of viewers who might defect to other networks. Enough defections could cost it millions in revenues and prestige. Right now, it’s too soon to know how its decision will play out in terms of Williams’ return or the impact his absence will have on the news cast’s ratings.
What we do know now, however, is that his case is a clear reminder that prominent leaders bear a special responsibility to make sure that their behavior is aligned with their organization’s values. An additional irony is that big shots and their employers often see them as “untouchables,” invulnerable because of their organizational value. But the same prominence which gives them status can make them susceptible to errors which others could potentially weather
When faced with big shot misbehavior, the key question – whether the person is a newscaster, a prominent physician, an executive, a faculty member, or a business chieftain – is, “What will be the contribution of the person if he or she is retained?” Will the individual be able to serve as a trustworthy, standard bearer for the organization, as the last runner on an Olympic relay, or a burden – a weight that can take the enterprise straight to the bottom?