What do Samsung CEO Jay Y Lee and Lakewood Church head pastor Joel Osteen have in common? Both are high profile figures who wound up in very hot water after essentially committing the same mistake – refusing to take responsibility for their wrongdoing. Last month, Lee was accused on multiple counts of white collar crimes and he subsequently attempted to pass the blame onto his superiors.
While Joel Osteen committed no crimes, his transgressions were much more public, and his punishment was meted out by the court of public opinion. During the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, Osteen made a post on social media saying that Lakewood Church would be unable to accept any of the people displaced from the flooding due to the floodwaters having entered the church premises. However, people began investigating this claim, and soon there was Twitter footage of people around the church perimeter with no observable floodwater anywhere. Osteen eventually kowtowed to the public pressure and opened up his church to flood victims, but not without exhorting members of his congregation to give of their resources without pledging any of his own. This contradiction was lambasted, and public perception of both Osteen and the Lakewood Church sank even further.
The consequences for the two figureheads were quite different, as Joel Osteen still has his role as the head pastor of one of the largest churches in the nation while Lee is facing a 12-year prison sentence. However the same behavior pattern of denial and blaming can be clearly observed between both of them.
What drives people in high-visibility, high-stress situations to shift blame when they are under duress? In the article “Shifting the blame to a powerless intermediary” Regine Oexl and Zachary J Grossman posit the idea that leaders are more likely to shift blame to others when they are in a position to deflect blame down the stream of bureaucracy. Jay L Lee deflected blame to his administrative staff, and Osteen was able to post a feeble defense about how his social media team was responsible for the dishonest tweet, but both were unsuccessful in salvaging their reputations.