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Does VW’s Claim that “Rogue Engineers” Caused Diesel Debacle Hold Water—Or Is It Just a Crisis-Fueled Excuse?

MerrieSpaethBy Merrie Spaeth, President, Spaeth Communications

Volkswagen of America Inc. has decided to hang its future on the word “rogue.” It’s a bad choice. They should fire the lawyer or PR firm advising it.

Rogue is Volkswagen’s explanation—and excuse—for the global debacle over the discovery that VW engineered its diesel cars to cheat emissions tests; the software turned on the proper filters during testing and off once the tests completed. Who was responsible? Apparently, just “rogue” engineers acting on their own.

It’s a mistake because it’s not believable that such a massive design strategy was a dark secret known only to a handful of engineers. It’s not believable because it’s not how engineers think. To accept that explanation requires that we believe that VW management is clueless and has no leadership philosophy.

My daughter (who also happens to be an engineer) says I endlessly repeat this story, but it’s appropriate here. I call it the Webster Way:  When I was chosen as a White House Fellow and assigned to the FBI, I asked the director, Judge William Webster, to explain my job as a Special Assistant. “Your job,” he said, “is to make sure I hear the things people think I don’t want to hear or that they don’t want me to hear.” This is a key requirement of leadership, particularly in the C-suite.

So, which is it VW? Do you have a secluded corner where a few engineers plotted to cost the company billions—or did you fail to communicate the Webster Way?

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