Three Reminders from the Arlington Cemetery Mess

Posted 08.02.2010

Arlington1 One of the stories that registered with me while I was on vacation last week was an extended video clip I saw of Senator Claire McCaskill grilling the former superintendent and deputy superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery at a congressional hearing. Since I was out of town, I had missed the investigative piece in the Washington Post last week that detailed decades of mismanagement at Arlington. The result of the poor leadership and management includes mismarked graves, unmarked graves, split graves and at least four burial urns that somehow ended up in a landfill. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that the whole situation is a travesty.

When I got back home over the weekend, I read the Post article to try to understand how such a thing could happen. You should read it for yourself, but the highlights include a feud between the superintendent and his deputy that dated back to 1992, a lack of a computerized system to map and manage the cemetery and a contracting process that was out of control. The mess at Arlington reminds me of three truths that are critical to the effective management of any organization.

1.  Personnel Problems Don’t Solve Themselves: The number one and number two guys at Arlington didn’t get along with each other. They were counseled by the supervising US Army officials in 1992 and 1997 to work things out and then were apparently left alone until they were both forced to retire last month.  The situation is a good reminder that personnel problems rarely solve themselves. They require consistent monitoring and corrective action from the people in charge.

2.  Accountability Matters: In a 1997 report, Army inspectors noted that the superintendent apparently felt that he didn’t need to change because, as they put it, “he has been able to wait out changes in military leadership.” Because the Army general overseeing Arlington changed every few years, there was no consistent pressure applied to change the things that needed to be changed at the cemetery. The problem was compounded in 2004 when the structure was changed to expand oversight of the cemetery from two organizations to four. As the Secretary of the Army told the Post, “By placing everyone in charge, no one was in charge.”

3.  Standards Matter: In reading the reporting, I get the feeling that no one was setting the standards by which an institution as important as Arlington should operate. It appears that the standard for the day to day operations of the cemetery were at the level of “good enough” when they should have been perfect. As I wrote in a post earlier this year, a big part of leadership and management is ensuring that the organization considers the right questions when determining how to proceed. Some of the ones that don’t seem to have been addressed at Arlington include:

  • What’s the scale and potential impact of the issue?
  • What would be the cost of failure?
  • What would a failure mean to our public image and relationships with key stakeholders?

It’s pretty obvious that those types of questions weren’t asked at Arlington. What problems need to be addressed in your organization sooner rather than later? What other reminders should we take away from the mess at Arlington?