Missing From Washington: Accountability

Politicians need to reacquaint themselves with the concept of taking responsibility.

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Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of Groupon, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, July 6, 2011. The conference is typically attended by many of the world's most powerful media executives.
Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of Groupon, attends the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, July 6, 2011. The conference is typically attended by many of the world's most powerful media executives.

With all the double-talk being bandied about Washington these days, how refreshing to hear a little honesty, especially the somewhat self-deprecating kind.

The grand prize has to go to Andrew Mason, the recently ousted CEO of Groupon. Things weren't going so well at the daily mass-coupon company, and Mason was blamed. Not only did he not portray himself as a victim of unfair blame-gaming, but Mason avoided sugar-coating things at all, telling employees in a memo:

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I've decided that I'd like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding—I was fired today. If you're wondering why ... you haven't been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that's hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Pay special attention to the final sentence: I am accountable. When was the last time we heard anyone in Washington say something like that? The entire debate over the sequester has been about whose fault it is, instead of making sure government employees don't get furloughed (not just an inconvenience for them, but a drag on the whole economy, since they'll have less to spend in our overwhelmingly consumer spending-driven economy) and people don't go without important services, they're looking at the politics. The poor performance by Groupon may or may not be Mason's fault. But as he pointed out, it doesn't matter: the fish stinks from the head, and since he was chairman, it makes sense he'd be held accountable. There's no self-pitying here, no tally of everything he did or tried that was ignored or ill executed by underlings. He just accepted responsibility with grace and humor (and some pricey Groupon stock, which surely makes it an easier pill to swallow). But still—what a nice change from the standard "never-apologize, never explain" theme so unfortunately common in government and business.

Mitt Romney is also showing a bit of self-reflection. In his first post-election interview on Fox, he said "it kills me" not to be in the White House. He said it was because had he won, there would not be a sequester—likely untrue, since the sequester is not only about the poor relationship between President Obama and congressional Republicans, but about the divisions inside the Hill itself. And yes, Romney still seemed oddly bewildered he had lost, despite the fact that pretty much every poll in the weeks leading up to Election Day had him behind. But it was, for Mitt Romney, a notably frank showing of vulnerability—however mild—from a man who presented, in public anyway, a demeanor of entitlement during the campaign. Romney added:

We weren't effective in taking my message primarily to minority voters–to Hispanic Americans, to African Americans, other minorities. That was a real weakness.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

That comment is a no-brainer to anyone who watched the campaign from the outside (or from inside the winning campaign), or to anyone who has a basic knowledge of numbers and demographics. But still—it's a step for Romney, who seemed to be in utter denial during the campaign about who and what modern America is. It's a small step, but it's a step.

Would that Congress and the White House exercise the humility Mason showed and even a little of the nascent self-reflection Romney displayed.