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'Distraction' or failed leadership?

The list of offenses committed by newly departed Mount St. Mary's University president Simon Newman is a long one — seeking to push out academically struggling first-year students early in the fall term to improve the school's rankings; comparing those he would target to bunnies in need of drowning or having a Glock put to their heads; then firing two professors and demoting the provost after he was criticized for the statement and the policy it reflected. To that, we would add one more: Saying he resigned because "the recent publicity relating to my leadership [had] become too great a distraction."

Put another way, he's saying, "I'm not the problem. It's you and your silly focus on little things like trampling academic freedom to cover up my embarrassment at having said something callous and offensive about a policy that was itself cynical and manipulative." If there's any distraction going on, perhaps it was among the university's board of trustees, who unanimously expressed confidence in Mr. Newman after the controversy despite growing furor among alumni and, eventually, an 87-3 vote by faculty calling for his resignation.

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But when it comes to the "distraction" dodge, Mr. Newman was hardly breaking new ground. It's a favorite word of those who resign or those who force them to.

When Baltimore homicides were spiking, arrests plummeting and questions swirling about poor leadership during April's riots, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opined that she had fired then-police commissioner Anthony Batts because "recent events have placed an intense focus on our police leadership, distracting many from what needs to be our main focus, the fight against crime." As if the focus on police leadership and the failings of the fight against crime were wholly unrelated. Of course, she was treading no new ground there; during a crime spike eight years earlier, Dixon administration officials declared then-commissioner Leonard Hamm's leadership to have been a distraction as well just as they ushered him out the door.

Distraction struck twice in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology in recent years. In 2012, after an inspector general's report found that the agency had misled city officials about its sub-rosa attempt to purchase new phone equipment, the chief of staff resigned because his judgment had "become a distraction." Two years later, the new head of MOIT, who had been on leave for months amid an investigation into what the mayor deemed "very serious allegations of fraud and abuse" also resigned because he was "unwilling to become a distraction."

In 2009, controversy swirled around the appointment of the appointment of a former school board chairman to a newly created and unadvertised $175,000 a year job despite what The Sun reported at the time to be "a 15-year record of lawsuits and bad-debt claims against [Brian D.] Morris, including foreclosures, garnisheed wages and unpaid taxes." Mr. Morris resigned, lamenting the "distraction to the public's appreciation for the enormous progress our school system has made."

This is, of course, not just a Maryland thing. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was pushed out not because she had botched the rollout of the Affordable Care Act but because she was a "distraction," White House sources said at the time. Eric Shinseki resigned, President Barack Obama said, because "he [did] not want to be a distraction," not because veterans were dying while waiting for care. Former House Speaker John Boehner was a distraction if he did, a distraction if he didn't; Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the effort by House conservatives to oust him a distraction, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi called his eventual acquiescence to those demands a distraction. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner's resignation: Was it because he engaged in deeply creepy and offensive behavior, or because the public's profound disgust was a "distraction?" Bonus points for you if you guessed the latter.

And then there's the corporate world. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo stepped down to avoid being a distraction, not because the stock price had tanked. Former National Quality Forum CEO Dr. Christine Cassel resigned from the boards of two health care companies in 2014 not because there was anything wrong with the leader of America's chief health care quality watchdog earning six-figure compensation from corporations with an interest in the organization's endorsements but because the controversy "had become a distraction." Kenneth Lay mentioned the d-word when he stepped down from Enron's board of directors, not his role in one of the biggest corporate scandals of the 21st century, which is saying something.

After the Shinseki resignation, Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote an article for Harvard Business Review called "When to resign and when to clean up the mess," noting the "distraction" factor when the leader becomes the story and hinders the ability of an organization to overcome a crisis — case in point, BP's Tony Hayward who complained about the personal toll he suffered in dealing with the Deepwater Horizon spill rather than staying focused on the loss of life and environmental devastation. "Leaders who linger after messes surface can get stuck on a failed approach, and they can appear more interested in keeping their jobs than helping the organization achieve its mission," she wrote, adding that in those cases, it's time to step down.

But what about cases when the mess is the leader's own making — and he's not willing to admit there's a mess in the first place? That's what happened at Mount St. Mary's, and the way we describe it matters. Pleading "distraction" is a convenient way to avoid analyzing real failures, and there are definitely some in this case, not only by Mr. Newman but also by a board that hired a non-traditional campus leader and evidently failed to give him the sort of guidance and coaching necessary for him to succeed in that role. Unless we're honest about what happens when leaders fall short or make mistakes, we risk a lot more "distractions" in the future.

—Andrew A. Green

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Dr. Christine Cassel's tenure at the National Quality Forum. She resigned from her seats on the boards of Kaiser Foundation Health Plans and Hospitals and Premier, Inc., in 2014, but remained CEO of the health quality organization until March 1 of this year when she departed to help lead the new Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine. The Sun regrets the error.

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