Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, commented yesterday on the ouster of BP’s widely-loathed CEO, Tony Hayward, beginning a list of his follies with:

Mr. Hayward must have studied management in a parallel universe, where a set of anti-rules for bad leadership are taught. Here’s what I imagine are those anti-rules.

  • Deny and minimize problems. Drop any mention of the high-minded principles you announced at the beginning of your term, such as safety and a culture that puts people first. Sweep them under the rug as you play down the significance of the crisis. Or better yet, find someone else to blame — a supplier, a business partner, a lowly employee or two.

I’ll leave it to the Professor to say whether that’s a bad or good bad idea — I’m sure their lawyers all agree denial is a good thing — but I can tell you this much: it’s what every single large corporate CEO has done when their company has wreaked havoc on innocents.

Let’s look at some examples aside from BP just this year:

  • The Duck Boat / Tug Boat collision: as of yet, no one has taken any responsibility at all.
  • Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion: there was "no company policy or practice to operate mining machines and cut coal without working methane monitors," no matter what NPR found.
  • Goldman Sachs "categorically" denied any wrongdoing in its subprime CDO sales: now they’re paying $550 million to settle the SEC action for the "incomplete information" it provided.

Truth is, we let them get away with it.

Massey and Goldman are big as ever. Once the media storm blows over, they can do whatever they want; Exxon litigated the Valdez spill for twenty years. Indeed, Wall Street was so smart they even figured out how to loan Exxon money without being on the hook if Exxon lost the litigation: they invented credit-default swaps, the same ones Wall Street used later to blow up the whole economy while walking away with billions.

I thus wouldn’t say that "Hayward must have studied management in a parallel universe" — he learned all his lessons right here in this business world, the one in which individuals are expected to take responsibility for their actions but large corporations are not.