What can chief executives reasonably be held responsible for? This is the question posed by George Entwistle's resignation.
The BBC employs 23,000 people. It is therefore a statistical certainty that there will be occasions of gross incompetence. If there's a great deal of ruin in a nation, there is also a great deal in any organization. To expect one man to prevent an act of idiocy by any one of 23,000 others is, surely, to expect the impossible.
Granted, he might be responsible if he had put in place the systems that generated such poor journalism. But this isn't obviously the case.
Against this, Entwistle is charged with being "incurious George", of not wanting to know what Newsnight was doing. This is harsh. Even leaving aside the fact that Newsnight is a minor programme - its audience of around 700,000 is less than that for Only Connect - any DG must be incurious. All of us have limited rationality, knowledge and attention. It's physically impossible to know everything. As the Vice Chairman of the BBC Trust has written, "‘Inattentional blindness’ is commonplace." The boss who tried to know everything would quickly be accused of stifling his organization by micro-management.
I suspect that what we're seeing with Entwistle's departure is the downside of management as witchdoctoring. We impute powers to chief executives which they do not in fact have with the result that if their organizations thrive we pay them millions but if they don't, we sacrifice them. In both circumstances, we fail to see that their span of control is limited.
Indeed, such a mistaken conception of management, more than Mr Entwistle's failings, might be the BBC's problem. Jeffrey Nielsen has written of the dangers of hierarchy thus:
Rank-based thinking suppresses the heart and intelligence of the majority of an organization's employees. Command and control managing under the influence of rank-based thinking tends to be harsh, coercive and demotivating. It is likely to create a poisonous atmosphere at the organization that kills an employee's natural desire to cooperate and be productive. (The Myth of Leadership, p11-12)
I fear this might have happened at the BBC. If everyone thinks the boss is responsible, they abdicate responsibility themselves with the result that nobody is responsible for anything.
But there is an alternative - what Nielsen calls peer-based thinking. In this, responsibility is diffused across an organization. Shoddy journalism is then the fault of the journalist, not "management" (where "management" means "someone else"), a poor programme the fault of the individual producer, and so on.
In empowering workers, such a business model disempowers management. And those managers who remain cease to be witchdoctors imputed with mythical powers, and become instead humble administrators and are paid as such.
And for this reason, we are likely to be stuck with dysfunctional organizations with absurd notions of "leadership".