A lot of people are crediting General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra with taking ownership of the car maker's recall crisis. Michael Wolff's piece on this in USA Today last month prompted an American Banker colleague to ask me an interesting question: Has anyone in banking taken this kind of ownership in a crisis situation?
I can think of one example HSBC USA's Irene Dorner, who stepped up two years ago to answer for her bank's compliance failures and has been working ever since to rectify the underlying problems. But few other examples come to mind. Where was Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein when mid-level trader Fabrice Tourre was taking the fall for his Fabulous Fab-ness and the firm's suspect activities in the subprime mortgage market? Where was JPMorgan Chase head Jamie Dimon while a lineup of his top lieutenants past and present faced a contentious Senate hearing over the bank's London Whale trading losses?
Today, one might ask where Bank of America's Brian Moynihan will be when he is called to account for miscalculations of capital that skewed the bank's stress test results and forced the bank to suspend its share buybacks and a planned dividend increase.
It's understandable why a CEO wouldn't want to touch controversies like these with a 10-foot pole. And in a big organization where there's no shortage of other people who can be sacrificed, it's relatively easy to keep one's hands clean.
But in this day and age, taking ownership of a problem, especially the kind of problem that threatens to envelop a company in scandal, would seem to be the only smart course of action for a CEO. I say this not just because the public and the equity markets are increasingly demanding responses that include a mix of recognition, contrition and accountability, but because it's hard to envision how else a leader makes the cultural and operational changes needed to address an organizational failure.
I haven't spoken to anyone over at GM as to how Barra crafted her response to the recall scandal that's been rocking Detroit, but she and her advisers would have done well to examine the approach Dorner took two summers ago when her bank was questioned by Congress on its vulnerabilities to money laundering and terrorist financing. HSBC's myriad compliance failures led to the firm's $1.9 billion settlement with U.S. authorities later in 2012.
Dorner's appearance before Congress that summer was a masterful example of a CEO striking the right balance between resoluteness and reconciliation, between her role as a corporate leader and her influence on bank activities that serve a broader, systemic objective. (The full text of her testimony can be found here.) Now Dorner's challenge lies in fulfilling her promise to repair HSBC's culture and systems. If HSBC falls short of that goal, of course, the failure would rest squarely on Dorner's shoulders. This would likely reinforce the notion that it's best for CEOs not to sully themselves with this kind of crisis ownership. But I hope her proactive stance proves to be the right one for anyone willing to try it.
Like Barra, Dorner had some personal distance from the scandal, having mainly inherited the problems from a predecessor. And like Barra, Dorner is female, a parallel that Wolff examines in his USA Today article. Are women in leadership positions simply more willing to get their hands dirty when it's time to clean something up? That's a theme I've explored before, inspired by Sen. Elizabeth Warren's observation that when women see a proverbial mess on the floor, their response often is something along the lines of, "Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop."
Will Bank of America's Moynihan prove that he can be equally handy at mopping up messes? I, for one, will be watching.
Heather Landy is Editor in Chief of American Banker Magazine.