If you don’t follow the news in the United States, you might not have heard about the growing “Bridgegate” political scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. To recap: a traffic jam was “engineered” by a senior member of his staff and several government appointees, allegedly as revenge for the mayor of Fort Lee, the city on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, refusing to endorse his re-election bid. Initially, the Governor laughed it off, but after Emails subpoenaed by the New Jersey legislature showed his deputy chief of staff had initiated the request, Christie fired her and several other key staff members. More investigations and subpoenas have followed, and the Governor, who no longer looks like a 2016 Presidential candidate, is spending much of his energy dealing with them.
While few project managers will ever get the kind of public scrutiny the Governor of New Jersey is receiving, there are some important lessons we should learn from his experience:
When a team member is accused of some wrongful act or abuse of power, take it seriously
You owe it to your customer and your team to respond professionally. Had the Governor, a former federal prosecutor, conducted his own investigation, this would be a completely different story.
Don’t try to downplay the consequences
The Governor mocked the legislators investigating the lane closures in a press conference, saying they had nothing better to do. In addition, many of the staff Emails released by investigators show a lack of compassion for the citizens impacted by the traffic jam. It was subsequently reported that a woman may have died because the ambulance transporting her to a hospital was delayed by the traffic jam. Christie felt compelled to defend himself in a later press conference, with “I am not a bully.”
Attempts to discredit the accuser nearly always backfire
A recent memo prepared by Christie’s staff, attacking former appointee David Wildstein after he claimed to have evidence implicating the Governor, has simply added to Christie’s public relation problems.
Develop good relationships that will see you through the bad times
The Governor cultivated his image as a tough leader by being combative, both with the press and with constituents. Now, some of the people that Christie alienated are recycling old accusations, including his alleged use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds for advertisements featuring himself and his family during the election campaign, and few of his fellow Republicans are rushing to his defense.
At some point, you have to either recover or step aside
There are at least five official investigations under way, and a growing number of civil lawsuits have been filed. The Governor’s office is now scrambling to cover the jobs of the staff people whom he fired, at the same time they are responding to investigators, subpoenas, and press inquiries. It is doubtful that they are working as effectively as before the scandal erupted. Several prominent politicians have called for Christie to step down from his position as Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, and less prominent public figures have suggested that he should resign as Governor. So far, that doesn’t look very likely; however, as more of the principals invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, the Governor may find he doesn’t have much time available to govern.
Crisis doesn’t build character; it simply exposes it. A code of ethics and professional conduct, such as the one promulgated by PMI, is an excellent resource for project managers. But the key lesson to learn is that you can’t manage your way out of a crisis; you have to lead.