Until last week, Governor Christie was widely acclaimed for his leadership skills, and his image as a tough and resolute leader propelled him to the front ranks of Republican presidential candidates. In his keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention, Christie focused on effective leadership, boasting that he is a “real leader” and accusing President Obama of exhibiting “absentee leadership.” And in other public speeches and press conferences, Christie prided himself on his combative style and tough talk.
The recent stunning revelation that Christie’s top aids punished the residents of Fort Lee for their mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie reveals that effective leadership consists of more than just decisiveness and determination. An effective leader also sets the right tone at the top. Although Christie might not have played any direct role in ordering the closure of two lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, it appears that Christie fostered a culture that led his top aids to instinctually assume that their boss would be inclined to punish Fort Lee residents for Mayor Sokolich’s endorsement of Christie’s opponent.
While the tone at the top may appear at first blush to be an amorphous and vacuous concept, my experience litigating whistleblower retaliation cases taught me that a deficient tone at the top has real consequences, especially for the whistleblowers that I represented. In particular, I consistently found that when senior leadership rules with an iron fist and lacks tolerance for dissent or whistleblowing, the company’s shareholders are harmed, and in some cases, public health and safety are jeopardized.
In evaluating Christie and other leaders in government and in business, we should investigate their record in setting the right tone at the top and demand answers to the following questions:
- How does the candidate handle dissent?
- Does the candidate retaliate against subordinates who raise concerns about ethics or compliance issues?
- Does the candidate have a record of taking a “my way or the highway approach”?
- Does the candidate use intimidation tactics to achieve his objectives?
Hopefully Bridgegate will bring greater focus on corporate culture and the importance of setting the right tone at the top.