About 5 p.m. on Jan. 2, 1988, a large above-ground fuel storage tank suddenly collapsed at an Ashland Oil facility in Floreffe, Pa., releasing nearly 4 million gallons of diesel fuel. Most of the fuel was captured by containment dikes, but an estimated 750,000 gallons poured into the nearby Monongahela River.
The fuel traveled downstream into the Ohio River, temporarily contaminating drinking water sources for an estimated 1 million people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, contaminating river ecosystems, killing wildlife, damaging private property and harming businesses.
Shortly after word of this catastrophe reached its corporate headquarters, Ashland's senior managers convened with their top lawyers to decide how best to respond. One significant focus of these deliberations was to provide then-CEO John Hall with the best legal advice possible on how to mitigate the extraordinary legal liability associated with this event. A former colleague of mine happened to be in the room at the time and described to me what happened.
Corporate counsel strongly recommended that great care be taken in making any public statements that would limit the company's options in defending itself in the litigation and government investigations that were sure to follow. With millions of potential plaintiffs, possibly billions in damage claims and the very real possibility of government prosecutions, counsel explained the importance of avoiding any admission of fault as they worked to craft a very carefully worded public statement to be issued on the company's behalf that evening.
As the deliberations continued, my colleague told me, Hall got up from his chair, grabbed his hat and coat and started for the door without saying a word. Conversation stopped and someone asked: "John, where are you going?" Hall replied: "I'm going to go in front of the TV cameras, and I'm going to tell all the people that we hurt today that I'm sorry. I'm going to tell them that we're going to do everything we can to help them." Without another word, Hall left the room as the lawyers and other company advisers looked on in stunned silence.
According to my colleague, the impact of Hall's televised, heartfelt apology was significant. The public outrage against the company was blunted and the lawsuits and claims for damages were much less than anticipated. Perhaps most importantly for Ashland, this single act of genuine decency gave its employees reason to be proud of their company even in the face of a disaster that threatened the company's good name.
I still draw inspiration today from the example John Hall set 26 years ago. Not only did he model the kind of moral courage I would hope to possess in difficult circumstances, but he also reminds me that the basic lessons we learned growing up still apply, even when you enter the business world. When you hurt someone by your actions-even if it was unintentional-you say you are sorry and you do your best to make things right. This and other similar hallmarks of honorable behavior are often forgotten in the pursuit of complex legal strategies whose unspoken purpose is, as often as not, to dodge responsibility for wrongful acts.
One other lesson I think we can draw from Hall's example is that even though it is best to avoid them, crises offer leaders significant opportunities to model an organization's ethical standards. There is, perhaps, no more potent force for creating a strong ethical corporate culture than the example set by a leader who publicly does what's right in difficult circumstances. Pretty codes of conduct, nice talking points in speeches to employees and mountains of policies and procedures pale in comparison to a single decisive act of principled leadership in its power to demonstrate that the company's stated values are not just slogans but real.
We may never face a crisis of the scale and magnitude John Hall did in 1988, but we are all presented with opportunities on a daily basis to lead by example. As we begin this new year, let's all resolve to look for opportunities both large and small to exhibit high levels of professional excellence that might not only serve to transform our own corporate culture but also inspire others to do the same. Let's give credit to others for their contribution to projects we work on together. Let's bravely own up to our mistakes. Let's bite our tongues in circumstances when we feel tempted to say something that would needlessly damage another's reputation.
Instead of focusing our energy on what others might do to improve themselves, let's focus our energy on ourselves to achieve higher levels of professional excellence. And even if we find ourselves occasionally not measuring up to our ideals, let's never stop striving to do better.
This is a worthy project for all of us in 2014 and one that I think we can help each other with. Just as I am inspired by Hall's example, I think we can draw inspiration from one another. I'd like to do my part in making this happen in the Rochester business community, but I need your help. If you see examples of exemplary ethical leadership in your firm or in our business community over the next year, please send me an email detailing them. Once I have received a number of these, I'll share them with you in this column to showcase the professional excellence that we all aspire to achieve in this new year.
Jim Nortz is executive vice president of compliance and ethics solutions at the Institute for Priority Thinking and is a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the institute or the RABEF. For more information about the RABEF, go to www.rochesterbusinessethics.com. Nortz can be reached at email@example.com.
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