Too Big? - Discussion

Main Points

  1. Organized groups are generally hierarchical in nature and engender leaders at the top who become increasingly powerful as the group grows in size.
  2. Leaders of big organizations are generally shielded from effective accountability.
  3. Many leaders are corrupted to an unacceptable degree by the growing power their position provides.  In such cases, the organization is ‘too big.’
  4. Private and public policy is needed to better deal with leaders and organizations that are becoming or have become ‘too big.’

Questions & Answers

  1. It’s easy to agree that organized groups have leaders, and that leaders of big organizations are more powerful than leaders of small organizations.  But what kinds of groups are we talking about?

    All manner of hierarchical organizations are common throughout the world.  We often think first of corporations and other businesses when we think of bigness.  And that’s certainly valid.  Equally valid are governments and their agencies, churches, charities, labor unions, fraternal and professional associations, advocacy groups, health groups … the list goes on and on.

    Even smaller organizations may have leaders who are above accountability.  The cases in Too Big? involve leaders of business and government organizations.

    However organizations may be defined under the law they are, in essence, groups of people.  What they do is done by people.  They are led by persons at the top of their organizational structure, and such leaders are, or should be, aware of what goes on in their organizations.  If that isn’t possible, the organization is too big.

    Q:What are typical titles held by leaders of organizations that may be Too Big?

    Leaders at the top are chief executive officers.  Depending on the specific organization they may be designated President, Chairman, Secretary, Director, General or any number of other titles.  They may be “camouflaged” under lesser-sounding titles.  Or they may have no title at all.

  2. In America, aren’t all organization leaders accountable to someone or, at least, to voters or the law?

    That’s what we’ve been taught, and it almost always looks that way on paper.  But consider that effective accountability requires six elements; if any element is missing there is no real accountability:

    • The responsibilities of the (CEO) must be unambiguous, both as to duties and authority, and as to limitations.

    • The superior-subordinate relationship must be personal, person to person.  One can’t be effectively accountable to impersonal entities – the public, the organization, the company, the community, etc. or anything other than an identifiable human person.  Groups can’t be truly accountable; only the persons who head them can be truly accountable.

    • The superior-subordinate relationship must be one-to-one.  Shared accountability is watered down so that no “one” is responsible; to have more than one boss is to have none.

    • The superior-subordinate relationship must include timely direct communication.  Long time lags diminish accountability.

    • The subordinate must not wield control or undue influence over people to whom he or she is accountable.

    • The superior must have real authority to censure, restrain or otherwise affect the subordinate’s well-being up to and including employment termination or legal action.

    Some organization concepts and structures make effective accountability difficult or impossible; Leaders of such organizations often escape accountability.  And in all organization models, leaders are often able to bypass or avoid at least one accountability element, thus negating accountability.  The many ways this is accomplished are brought to light by the five cases in Too Big?

    Q:What are some examples of not following these rules?

    Organizations usually direct their leaders to further the interests of the organization and/or its constituents.  Business CEOs are directed to maximize profits, improve market share, boost stock prices, etc.  Other organizations charge their CEOs with achieving or enhancing other ends.  But real or implied position guides for CEOs rarely give much attention to limitations.

    Q:You write that persons can be accountable only to an individual person, but aren’t many leaders accountable to Boards of Directors, or committees and the like, or the voters, or the law?

    Most boards, committees, voters and the like require majority votes to direct or censure a CEO.  It’s easy to see that such a political process fails in many ways to provide effective accountability.

    Q:You write that groups – companies, government and non-government organizations – can’t be accountable; only persons can be accountable.  Many or most such entities are governed by charters or laws that require they perform within specific limits.  Doesn’t that make them accountable?

    To a degree.  Groups may generally do the things specified in their ‘charters.’  But most censures or punishments for group misbehavior are simply borne as a cost of doing business, or diluted into lower dividends or minor inconveniences to a large number of mostly-unaware individuals.

    In extreme cases groups may be broken up or forced out of existence, but their leaders rarely suffer significant personal pain.

    Q:What are some examples of accountability’s suffering from communication time lags?

    When a superior’s direction reaches the supervised leader after an action to the contrary has already been taken, accountability is largely negated.  An extreme example is presented in Too Big?’s first case, wherein it took a full year for complete communication.  In present times business leaders can contrive in many ways to not receive transmitted directions until after relevant actions have been taken.

    Political leaders know that, as time goes by, things tend to recede in peoples’ memories.  They often make use of that reality to remain unaccountable to their constituencies.

    Q:In what ways do organization leaders wield control or significant influence over people to whom they report?

    One of the most common occurs when organization CEO’s appoint or effectively control the tenure of members of governing boards.  Or the CEO actually sits on the Board as a voting member.  We see this in three of Too Big?’s cases.

    In the case of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Hoover used his extensive personal files to essentially blackmail superiors (and others).

    Q:Does Too Big? include examples of a leader’s supervisor not having real authority to censure, restrain or otherwise affect the subordinate’s well-being?

    Yes, that’s a fact in two cases, the ones about John D. Rockefeller and Mark Zuckerberg.

  3. We know that power corrupts.  But how is it that power of an organization’s leader grows over time?

    Two things occur.  As organizations grow they have more resources – money, facilities, personnel, contacts, etc. – for operations.  An organization’s leader has access to its resources and thus, accrues growing power.  At some point the corruption of its leader indicates that the organization is too big.  Similarly, the organization becomes too big if its leader can no longer control it.

  4. In Too Big? you suggest some policy changes making it a matter of law that the chief executive of any organization is responsible for acts of subordinates or agents on behalf of the organization, and is punishable in the same degree as the actual perpetrator.  Is it reasonable or fair to punish the leader for acts of his or her subordinates?

    I know it sounds extreme, and it is.  But the chief executive orders and accepts subordinates’ actions, at least indirectly and, thus, approves of them overtly or tacitly.  The boss gets paid the big bucks to be responsible for the organization.  If he or she can’t control it, or doesn’t know what’s going on, then the organization is ‘too big.’

    Such significant personal penalties will not affect leaders who do not tolerate wrongdoing by subordinates, it will incentivize leaders to make sure people in the organization understand what the leader demands and what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior, and it will tend to weed out potential leaders who aren’t up to the job.

    Q:FBI, CIA and other government agents get away with breaking laws because District Attorneys, etc., don’t prosecute, often citing sovereign immunity or prosecutorial discretion.  We can’t do much about that, can we?

    Legislators should enact laws that enable citizens to require prosecutions in such cases.

    Q:‘Section 230’ shields social media companies from liability for anything that goes out over their platforms.  What about that?

    The Congress should enact one small change:  Remove the words “or otherwise objectionable” from the wording in Section 230(c)(2).

    Congress should also enact a social-media equivalent of the “equal time” rule once required of broadcasters, such that any political candidate can request equal coverage for a rebuttal to any post by or on behalf of his/her opponent, and if any user finds a post to be substantially untrue or just misleading, the user can request equal coverage for a rebuttal post.  Require the social media, upon receiving such a request, to allow the complainant to submit a rebuttal or comparable ‘correcting’ post that will immediately appear in the news feed of every user who received the offending post.

    And Congress should make a small change to the Sherman antitrust act.  The first sentence of the related U.S. Code provides that “Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States … shall be deemed guilty of a felony …”  Social media should be explicitly included, perhaps by inserting “or electronic communications” between “commerce” and “among” in the first sentence of the Code.