Why honesty is the best policy and examples of why Jamaican leaders fail badly: The Dr. Carl Williams debacle

Let me be absolutely clear. I have no personal gripe against Dr. Carl Williams, who recently found himself forced to admit that he would be resigning as Commissioner of Police. However, I do have a gripe about what he represents or represented. Jamaicans have a serious problem with candour–the quality of being honest and telling the truth, especially about a difficult or embarrassing subject (as defined by Cambridge (University) English Dictionary). That singular inability to be totally honest led Dr. Williams to paint himself into a ridiculous corner. But, he is but a child of a system where covering real intentions is par for the course, at many levels, and often disturbingly so at the highest levels. Rather than leading with information, leaders often have to have information dragged from them. Transparency is something that many Jamaicans appear to fear with a serious dread. I have thoughts on its origin, but will leave that for the moment.

When I had an exchange with Dr. Williams a few days ago, while participating in a #Talkback chat on Twitter, several of his replies to questions left me uneasy. He dealt reasonably well with a range of sometimes awkward questions about police conduct. One of the replies that left me ill at ease was that to the question of how many of the 400,000-odd tickets issued by the police for traffic violations had been paid, and what was the amount. Effective policing is about making people abide by the law, amongst other things. Issuing tickets does not matter if transgressors do not pay and merely ignore the violations and sanctions, and worse repeat the behaviour. So, I wanted to know how good the police were in that regard. I also wanted to know (as an economist would) how much of a contribution ‘crime fighting’ was making to the government budget. Then I got this reply: ‘JCF is not responsible for collection’. Now, my first reaction was shock at what I took to be a flippant reply. But, I paused and took into account the nature of Twitter and how short, clippy replies might give a wrong impression. But, I had a sneaky suspicion about police attitudes to what they do: we issue tickets, and that’s all. You can see from my follow-up reply that I wanted reassurance about the police attitude to what I saw as the totality of policing.

Twitter exchange with Dr. Carl Williams
I was happy to know that our dialog was going to continue, however, as Dr. Williams assured the audience in his parting words, before wishing us all a merry Christmas.

Dr. Williams signs off for Christmas
Dr. Williams did not need to make any reference to future exchanges, and knowing what he knew about his planned future, had every reason to say nothing. But, he didn’t do that. Instead, he gave a palpably false indication about his intentions. Why paint yourself into that corner? What was so scary about the truth?

I did not know how small the corner was at the time, because I had been unaware that Dr. Williams had recently been on the radio and denied publicly that he would be stepping down in 2017. So, he went on the radio yesterday to apologize for misleading the public and his justification was that he’d been caught off guard. So, now the lack of candour comes and bites as hard as it can.

Singularly, he mismanaged a process that he had in his hands to control. But, he chose the route of less information is better.

Dr. Williams has as his motto ‘quality leadership inspires performance’; it’s written simply on his Twitter profile. He showed in this series of ‘parting shots’ what seemed lacking in leadership–a certain high quality in the form of respect for truthfulness. That sign of dissemblance is the sort of thing, if shown at the top, can only be assumed to be shown and condoned lower down. That is the knell of doom for ordinary citizens

Being caught off-guard over something you were hiding is either naive or careless. My father says (and I repeat to my children) ‘Don’t be surprised by the obvious!’

If one is to be interviewed, by a journalist of some sort, the least one should do is prepare for the awkward questions. This is media training 101. When one knows that a very awkward personal development is being kept from the public, why would one not be prepared for a question about that? It’s basic! In fact, the interview gave a perfect opening to come clean with the public, and say something like ‘I did not want to announce it yet, but I will be stepping down soon. I will advise of the precise dates, shortly.’ Instead, the Commissioner lied!

I wrote recently about the integrity of the police. Whether I am alone in my concerns doesn’t really worry me. I cannot see how a security force that is there to protect citizens but constantly tries to hide from citizens what it’s really doing and how badly it’s doing it has a bright future. That Dr. Williams had the gall to lie about his resignation speaks volumes.

I spoke yesterday on Facebook live chat about tensions within police ‘high command’ that were discernible if one listened to the many voices that were speaking discordantly from the top. That told me that the leader was not fully in charge, his leadership was barely respected at the top, and likely less lower down, and therefore little positive was going to change. One can only hope that the interim Commissioner understands what significant betrayal of trust has gone on and tries to rebuild that quickly.

Dr. Williams said he was glad he was not leaving under a cloud. I guess if you really are not aware of where you’re standing and what the shadows at your feet tell you then that’s a reasonable misunderstanding of what is going on above your head. Remember, this was the man who gave himself a perfect score, “10 out of 10”, after 10 months in the job. I rest my case. 😦