May 5, 2006

Kaavya different from Swanson?

Two plagiarists...different rules?

Michael Lissack forwarded a NYT article thats states:

For Kaavya Viswanathan, national humiliation has been the answer. She's the Harvard sophomore who plagiarized large sections of other books in her debut novel and has spent much of the last week as the media's whipping girl.

It's hard to work up a lot of sympathy for her, too. She won a huge book contract thanks in part to her dishonesty, and her excuse - that she has a photographic memory - doesn't exactly smack of repentance. Still, it is worth remembering that Ms. Viswanathan is only 19 and that a lot of us did stupid things at that age. I'm guessing she will learn her lesson.

Last week's other plagiarist doesn't have this excuse. He is William H. Swanson, the 57-year-old chief executive of Raytheon, the big military contractor, and a board member at Sprint Nextel. Yet his sins have gotten just a smidgeon of the attention that Ms. Viswanathan's have. That is too bad, because in the scheme of things his character matters a lot more than hers does.

The whole situation is enough to make you wonder whether we now have lower expectations for chief executives than we do for teenagers.

FOR years, Mr. Swanson has been peddling a list of common-sense maxims called "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management," which became something of a cult hit in corporate America. Raytheon published them as a small book and has given away 300,000 copies.

Warren E. Buffett liked it so much, according to Business 2.0 magazine, that he ordered dozens for friends and colleagues.

Mr. Swanson was happy to accept credit, often in an aw-shucks way that fit with his homespun ideas. If you follow the rules, he wrote at the end of the book, "maybe you too can become a leader of a company and maybe it won't take you as long as it took me to get there."

Last month, however, an engineer in San Diego named Carl Durrenberger read the rules and realized they were neither unwritten nor Mr. Swanson's. In 1944, another engineer, W. J. King, published, "The Unwritten Laws of Engineering," which contain 17 of Mr. Swanson's 33 rules, often down to the very word.

"Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a well-ordered business," Mr. King wrote. "Promises, schedules and estimates are important instruments in a well-run business," Mr. Swanson wrote.

In fact it emerges later that the "book" emerged because a subordinate used King's words as Swanson's...and never did Swanson find that out.

As the article states towards the end:

It makes perfect sense that Ms. Viswanathan has gotten more attention, in this newspaper and elsewhere. She was a hot young novelist whose downfall offers a chance to expound upon everything from the book business to the college-application frenzy, with a dash of Harvard schadenfreude thrown in. Mr. Swanson is an accomplished executive who did not need a book to make him rich or semifamous.

But his story is still the more important one. He runs an 80,000-employee company that holds the lives of American soldiers in its hands. His actions affect the reputation of Raytheon's employees and chief executives generally. He is, in short, supposed to be a leader, and to quote a well-known management expert, "When things go wrong, true leaders take responsibility and rectify a mistake with speed and passion."

Actually, Mr. Swanson said that a few months ago. It didn't make the book, but he claims it's one of the rules he lives by. Do you believe him?