The specifics of the event are outlandish, outrageous; even scandalous.
As our nation was reeling over near record high unemployment levels, incredible mounting deficits and the possibility of a double dip recession, the U.S. General Services Administration was throwing an extravagant Las Vegas meeting at the taxpayers’ expense. Jeffrey Neely, the senior regional official in charge of the 2010 Western Regions Conference told his underlings that he wanted to make a splash and this conference, themed A Showcase of World-Class Talent, was to be “over the top.” It appears he reached his goal as expenditures included:
- $136,504 on meeting planning, including $100,000 in travel costs to send employees to the Las Vegas area on “scouting trips.”
- $146,527 for catering, including $44/per person for breakfasts and $95/per person for a reception and dinner
- $75,000 for a team building exercise that including constructing bicycles
- $7,000 for sushi rolls
- $6,325 for commemorative coins given to each participant, neatly enclosed in a velvet box
- $3,200 for a session with a mind reader
- $1,840 on “vests”
Total cost to taxpayers for this four day gathering of 300: $822,751!
In the aftermath of the Inspector General’s report on April 2, 2012, two top agency officials were fired, a handful of others placed on administrative leave pending further investigations, followed by the resignation of the GSA Administrator herself.
Unfortunately, stories like this have always existed within public or government agencies. But when they come to light at a time when people are under financial pressure with near record gas prices, struggling to make ends meet and to stay in their homes, the news is particularly disheartening.
When such massive management failures come to light, they present a cautionary tale. As Catherine Aird advised: “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” Here are some leadership lessons we can learn from the GSA’s management debacle.
1. What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas
Would the decisions you make stand up to public scrutiny? What would be the fallout (if any) if my financial/moral/ethical choices were to hit the light of day?
2. Remember, It’s Not Your Money
Be a responsible steward of your resources; be especially diligent when those funds aren’t your own. (Political and ministry leaders, please take note.)
3. Question Dubious Decisions
If something doesn’t pass the smell test, have the courage to say so; even if you’re not the top dog.
4. Own Up to Your Mistakes
There’s no way a leader, CEO or CFO can possibly know every action every employee makes. But an expenditure of more than $800,000 should catch your attention! Be responsible; don’t plead the Fifth Amendment to every question asked by congressional representatives (as fired exec Neely did).
5. Obey the Letter and the Spirit of the Law
A leader knows the difference between the two, but should have the character and integrity to uphold both; even if it’s inconvenient.
6. Careful of that Pride Thing
What brought mainstream attention to this GSA scandal was when a music video made by a GSA employee became public. He rapped about how he would “never be under investigation” for wasting taxpayer funds. The music video won a Red Carpet conference award as the presenter joked about conference spending! “First pride, then the crash — the bigger the ego, the harder the fall” (Prov. 16.18 Msg).
Effective leadership can be complicated and difficult. Yet few generations need to observe principled leadership more than ours. Our current need for honorable, ethical and responsible servant-leadership is the most critical issue confronting the United States. Only through modeling authentic servant leadership will contemporary leaders effectively and strategically shape the future as they build upon a platform of integrity and trust. The ramifications of this kind of leadership (or lack of it) will impact our present generation and countless generations to come. It’s just a thought.
Stay the Course,
Dr. Greg Morris