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Canadian leaders follow pattern of passing the buck

It is now abundantly clear that colossal blunders were made at BlackBerry Ltd.

The company blew through billions of dollars developing, making and marketing products that consumers aren't buying.

So where is the contrition for this mess? A great Canadian company is on the ropes, and no one is owning up to the beating.

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Thorsten Heins certainly hasn't. He's out as chief executive after just 22 months on the job, but is being rewarded for failure with a multimillion-dollar severance package.

Nor have the two men who preceded him at BlackBerry – former co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. Mr. Balsillie quietly snipes from the sidelines that if only Mr. Heins and the board of directors had listened to him about pushing the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) instant messaging system the company would be fine. Mr. Lazaridis, the company's technology visionary, blames Mr. Heins for underestimating the appeal of the traditional keyboard to BlackBerry's most loyal fans.

And the board of directors, which hired Mr. Heins and approved his golden handshake, isn't owning up to its own trail of miscues. Ditto for Prem Watsa, whose Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. failed to deliver on a private buyout.

The BlackBerry saga underscores a disturbing pattern – in the corporate world, and in politics. Personal accountability is out. Finger-pointing is in.

Consider the scandals that have engulfed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

It is a disgrace that senators abused their expense accounts, and that a prominent mayor smoked crack cocaine and cavorted with alleged drug dealers.

But the real scandal is the stunning failure of the people involved to accept responsibility for bad behaviour.

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Mr. Harper refuses to be tied to the actions of Nigel Wright, his once trusted right-hand man and former chief of staff who secretly paid off Senator Mike Duffy's illegitimate expense claims. The Prime Minister has also distanced himself from the Conservative Party of Canada, which worked in the backrooms to negotiate a settlement with Mr. Duffy, and later reimbursed his legal fees.

Mr. Harper readily admits mistakes were made – just not by him. The senators let him down. Mr. Wright let him down.

Forgotten, it seems, is that the Prime Minister's Office is an extension of Mr. Harper himself. It does work in his name. And he's the leader of the Conservative Party.

"He wants to be in charge, he just does not want to be responsible," NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair pointed out as he grilled the Prime Minister during Question Period last week.

The moral vacuum in Ottawa pales, however, compared with what's happening in Toronto. Mayor Rob Ford has spent more than six months lying about an apparent substance-abuse problem. At every turn, he has blamed others for his predicament, including political opponents, the news media and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. Mr. Ford belatedly admitted that he embarrassed the city after a video apparently showing him smoking crack wound up in police hands. But he has stopped far short of the ultimate expression of responsibility – quitting as mayor.

At BlackBerry, blame for the severely degraded condition of the company must lie with those who collectively guided its strategic direction for the past several years – Mr. Heins, Mr. Balsillie, Mr. Lazaridis and the board. Its reputation with customers and business partners is in tatters after the aborted sale of the company, dwindling market share, mounting losses and the flight of scores of its best and brightest minds.

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The unfortunate message here is that it really doesn't matter what leaders do, or what happens on their watch. Arrogant defiance and blame-shifting has replaced personal responsibility. If they looked a little more closely in the mirror, such leaders might not like the image staring back at them.

As U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once famously put it: "If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month."

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More


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