When I was a young man in college, I had the best summer job ever. I was a lifeguard. Clad in my New York State-issued guard attire, I worked at the Fort Niagara pool complex for three blessed summers I will never forget. Each day I’d ride my bike to work through a beautiful park, the sun sparkling diamonds through the trees. Upon arrival, I got paid a third better than minimum wage to watch pretty girls swim, perfect my tan and—oh yes—save lives.
And save lives we did. In the years that I served, we hauled scads of children and adults of all ages from the clutches of a watery grave. When I look back on it now, it’s really remarkable how many people we pulled out of the three pools that comprised our complex—a wading pool, an eight-lane fifty-meter lap pool (at a uniform depth of three and half feet) and a 12-foot deep dive pool.
My first save was a 50-something man who jumped off the meter board into the dive pool and immediately commenced drowning in front of me, no more than four feet from the deck. I was so surprised by his inability to swim a stroke, I stared at him from my lifeguard perch for a few beats longer than I should have before blowing my whistle, jumping in and literally pushing him to safety—no fancy lifeguarding techniques required. We even had saves in the wading pool. A double drowning was averted once when one of my colleagues pulled two toddlers to their feet who had dragged each other to the bottom while their parents were otherwise occupied.
Despite the many who found themselves imperiled, in all the years I worked there, we never lost a patron. I attributed this flawless record to the vigilance, skill and dedication of the 18 highly trained guards with whom I was proud to serve. However, my views on this subject changed when I visited a similar pool complex in Germany while stationed as an Army officer in that country for a three-year tour.
Like ours, the German swim park had several pools, one of which was a 50-meter lap pool. But, instead of being three and a half feet deep, the shallow end of the German pool was eight feet deep. The other end was 15 feet deep and sported two meter boards, two three-meter boards and a tower comprising five- and 10-meter concrete platforms—all of which were open to the public and in active use. Despite the obvious peril associated with such an establishment, their entire lifeguarding staff consisted of a single overweight 75-year-old man in a lifeguard costume who sat in a folding chair on the pool’s deck and who appeared to pay no attention to the hundreds of swimmers or divers he was charged with protecting.
At first, I was alarmed about the paucity of qualified staff to guard so many bathers. However, as I continued to frequent the pool over several months, I began to understand that German sensibilities were superior to the ones on which I was raised. Unlike the throngs we watched like hawks at Fort Niagara, the pool patrons in Germany took full responsibility for their own safety and did not rely upon others to save them from their own folly. They learned to swim or were responsible enough to stay out of the pool or near the side if they lacked the requisite skills. By contrast, our guard staffing scheme was predicated on what I came to believe was an overly paternalistic paradigm born of a litigious society that holds pool owners accountable for the foolishness of their patrons rather than the other way around. This, of course, leads to learned helplessness and irresponsible behavior. If you look carefully, you can observe a similar pattern in the business world.
For nearly 30 years I’ve observed many business leaders who rely so heavily on corporate functions like human resources, compliance and legal that they appear to forget that they are getting paid to make decisions and to lead. In such dysfunctional organizations, you’ll often hear people say: “You’d better pass that by legal or compliance before you do anything.” In these workplaces, managers sprint to human resources to seek assistance when there is the slightest whiff of employee friction. Worse yet are firms that literally require every decision to go through legal or some other corporate function. Organizational paralysis, atrophying of critical leadership skills and personal responsibility for decision-making inevitably follows.
I don’t mean to suggest that business leaders go it on their own when they are facing significant peril. After all, as corporate counsel and a chief compliance officer, I am paid to provide advice to guide company leaders through legal and ethical minefields. I also occasionally “pull them from the pool” when they’re floundering and over their heads. However, when business leaders become too dependent on the professionals in their corporate functions, both they and the companies they serve suffer.
The reality is there are never enough corporate “lifeguards” to go around. And, although they serve a vital function and are an important part of the team, they are not the ones who are supposed to be running the company. Business leaders are paid premium wages for their good judgment and management expertise. They should seek the counsel of their corporate functions on those occasions when they are in uncharted waters. But, on a day-to-day basis, business leaders need to learn how to “swim” on their own and take full responsibility for their actions.
Jim Nortz is chief compliance officer for Carestream Health Inc. He also is a former board member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the RABEF, the ECOA or Carestream Health. Nortz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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