Journal of Operational Risk

Leadership and high-reliability organizations: why banks fail

Brendon Young


This paper asserts that cultural change and a commitment to "high reliability" are necessary factors in establishing a stable banking sector and that regulation and legislation alone are not enough. In a fractional banking system, power rests with those who control the money. Consequently, stability requires trust in the banking system and in governments. Culture and ethics are key factors. However, while the need for cultural reform may be evident, the difficulty in bringing about and fortifying change should not be underestimated, particularly in countries where free-market forces have tended toward the creation of plutonomies. This paper considers the concept of high reliability, identifying its cultural aspect, and suggests that this could offer a way forward, particularly for systemically important financial organizations. High-reliability organizations are "mindful" organizations, distinguished by high levels of resilience and responsiveness (ie, they are stable organizations with a low risk of failure, capable of continuing to operate effectively in times of stress). High-reliability organizations are characterized by exemplary leadership and customer-centric objectives, with an ability to consistently and continuously provide services or products to high predefined standards. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that banks appear to be focused on self-edification rather than high reliability. Indeed, a radical new critique suggests that banking is failing to meet its fundamental objectives. Furthermore, the Bank of England has stated that banking is failing to make an adequate positive economic contribution and that banks would have been somewhat less profitable during much of this century had the government and the taxpayer not implicitly borne the risks, thereby effectively subsidizing banking.

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