The Legacy Of Allan McDonald: Governance Lessons From A Noble Whistleblower

The Challenger disaster could have been avoided by leadership attention to the voice of a thoughtful … [+]

As a general rule, obituaries aren’t typical governance briefing material. They’re not often found as a discussion item on a board meeting agenda. But for Allan McDonald, there should be a very explicit exception to that rule. For Mr. McDonald’s story tells of a courageous yet desperate effort to prevent the Challenger space shuttle disaster; a disaster he believed was imminent.

For those efforts, Mr. McDonald holds a truly special place in the pantheon of corporate whistleblowers. His recent passing on March 9 provides an exceptional “culture of compliance” lesson for corporate governance. For the Challenger disaster represents a colossal failure of organizational process that remains relevant to this day.

Mr. McDonald wasn’t an astronaut, a corporate executive, a NASA administrator or even a gold-digging, discontented employee. Rather, he was an engineer; member in good standing of that group of unique folks Neil Armstrong described as “born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free body diagrams and…propelled by compressible flow.”

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More particularly, he was a long serving employee of the NASA contractor that handled the space shuttle booster rockets. In that role he knew, as did many others, of the unreliability of the notorious “O-Ring”; the pressure seal in the aft field joint of the shuttle’s right solid rocket motor. And he knew, as did many others, that the O-Ring design was unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors, including the effects of cold temperature (i.e., launching below 53 degrees).

So he took note, as did many others, of the cold temperatures and the risk of launchpad ice in the days before the Challenger’s scheduled launch. And like some others, when the temperature fell to 36 degrees on launch day, he recognized the extreme risk to the shuttle, the astronauts and to the program goals. But unlike most others, he decided to take action.

On the night before launch, Mr. McDonald and other members of his immediate engineering team refused to agree to move forward with the schedule. But they met strong resistance from senior management and NASA. While Mr. McDonald’s team subsequently acquiesced to the launch, McDonald did not. He was then pressed by his superiors to prove that the shuttle was not safe to launch, as opposed to the normal risk equation of proving that it was safe to launch. He maintained his opposition, the launch occurred as scheduled, and the Challenger exploded less than two minutes after lift-off.

But Mr. McDonald was not finished. In early hearings of the presidential commission subsequently created to examine the Challenger disaster, McDonald publicly refuted the characterization of his senior executives that there was broad agreement to launch the shuttle. McDonald’s comments have been credited as the turning point in the Commission’s work, when it pivoted towards its ultimate conclusion that the contributing causes to the explosion were multiple risk management errors and the erosion of once-effective and redundant safety protocols.

In many respects, Mr. McDonald was the archetype of the noble corporate whistleblower. The voice not motivated by reward, fame or discontent, but rather by an informed perception of “the right thing,” and a sincere interest in protecting the company, its mission and its people from perceived great harm. Those individuals exist at all levels of the organizational hierarchy, to this day.

This is the type of voice that the corporate board should seek to support, through a clear tone at the top; through accessible and responsive messaging conduits; through legitimate anti-retaliation policies and through a very receptive ear in the board. Board members should ask themselves: would Allen McDonald’s voice be heard, and given credence, in their company-or drowned out by the cacophony of competing business interests?

We’re nearly twenty years after Sarbanes-Oxley; twenty years after the Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins was Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”. While still important, corporate compliance seems to have had its “fifteen years of fame” in the minds of some executives; the organizational initiative has turned elsewhere. The once-key oversight theme of corporate responsibility has yielded the field to the loftier themes of corporate social responsibility.

But the pendulum may be swinging back. There is a renewed recognition that compliance programs can atrophy from lack of support. The new regulatory administration in Washington may return to an emphasis on organizational accountability. Shareholders may grow increasingly intolerant of costly corporate compliance lapses. And with all that may come a new emphasis on the role of the whistleblower, and the board’s role in assuring the support and protection of that role.

So don’t be surprised when you find an obscure engineer’s obituary in next month’s board book. It will be well worth a read.

I wish to acknowledge “Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon” by Craig Nelson (Penguin, 2009) as the source of the Neil Armstrong quote in the body of this post.

I am a partner in the Chicago office of international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and earned my law degree at Northwestern University. I represent corporations (and

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