To follow the scandal at Volkswagen is to be stunned anew, stymied anew, by our ignorance of bad leadership. We know no more about bad leadership now than we ever did – a miserable discredit to any of the ostensible experts. A miserable discredit to anyone even vaguely related, anyone in the hard sciences, the social sciences, anyone who presumes to study the human condition.
Volkswagen has already admitted to equipping some 11 million cars worldwide with software that enabled it to cheat on emissions tests. And the costs have already been huge: personal costs, professional costs, political costs, consumer costs, climate costs, reputational costs, and obviously financial costs, which will in the end be staggering.
How could this have happened? How could Volkswagen’s leaders and managers get themselves, their company into such a miserable mess? Did they not know right from wrong? Did their greed to succeed color their judgement? Did they really think that they could indefinitely get away with wrongdoing on such a massive scale?
There will, of course, be case studies aplenty of how this all came to pass. But they will all be inadequate to the magnitude of the task at hand. What this case merits is nothing less than a massive, expensive, and enduring commitment to unraveling how what happened did.
Bad leadership is a disease. It’s not a physical disease. It’s a social disease no less invasive or destructive than its physical counterpart. Unless and until we recognize the parallel, bad leadership will remain incurable, impossible to root out in the future any more than in the past. Sad. No, tragic.