Practical Advice for Ethical Executives

Two Harvard MBA students — Umaimah Mendhro and Abhinav Sinha — wrote the following, for Forbes: Three Keys To Staying Ethical In The Age Of Madoff.

The whole thing is worth a read. Here are the opening paragraphs:

What separates a Rod Blagojevich from a Patrick Fitzgerald? A Bernard Madoff from a Warren Buffett? What makes such people, at either extreme, so different from any of us? Everything–and not too much.

As citizens of Pakistan and India who are students at Harvard Business School, we spent a considerable amount of time over the past several months interviewing and drawing lessons from 12 leaders in Pakistan and seven in India who are carrying the torch of ethical business behavior. Come factory shutdowns, forced resignations or life threats, they’ve been standing up against corruption in environments where corruption is the rule.

Conventional wisdom and our own preconceptions hold that a mix of many complex, research-worthy characteristics and influences separates the highly moral from the corrupt. What we found suggested, to the contrary, that it all comes down to three simple things…

What 3 things? The authors distill the lessons learned from the execs they studied into the following 3 injunctions:

  • “Call corruption corruption.” (Basically, avoid euphemisms for practices you know are corrupt.)
  • “Enforce behavior that creates new values.” (This is essentially the Aristotelian point that what we do changes who we are.)
  • “Give up on the security of wavering.” (Roughly: don’t let yourself get away with thinking there are lots of moral “grey zones.”)

Sounds like pretty good advice, over all. I’ll only comment briefly on the last point.

The authors applaud the executives they studied for their attachment to “moral absolutism.” If that means doing the right thing when the right thing is clear, then that’s a fine thing to praise. Showing some spine in the face of pervasive corruption is hard, and to be commended. That’s pretty much the definition of “integrity.” On the other hand, a lack of sensitivity to context isn’t a virtue. Pretty much all good rules are subject to valid exceptions. The tricky part is enunciating a clear conception of what those exceptions are, and making sure the exceptions apply to everyone, not just you.

Thanks to Suzie and Gini for the article.

6 comments so far

  1. Chris MacDonald on

    My apologies for the awkward title.It’s not really about advice for ethical executives. It’s practical ethical advice, for execs who care about ethics.

  2. Anonymous on

    There is nothing wrong with moral absolutism — if you know what to (and its hardly a novel idea) base your morals on. Jesus Christ was history’s best ethicist/moralist besides being the son of God and mankind’s saviour. “The Freedom of Morality” is a book by Christos Yannaras, a well known Greek theologian and professor who has written more than a dozen books on ethics, theology and modern religious philosophy. (Foreword by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia)Prof. Yannaras wrote that morality is seen not as “an objective measure for evaluating character and behavior, but the dynamic response of personal freedom to the existential truth and authenticity of man.” I like that better, and its more defining and true to our human nature than Peter Singer’s “if it is useful, it has worth: so use it” crass utilitarianism. -ISBN 0-88141-028-4

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Pardon? “If it is useful, it has worth: so use it”?Which of Singer’s books is that in? It’s not a slogan that sounds like any of the mainstream versions of utilitarianism (and Singer is generally seen as being a mainstream utilitarian, I think).

  4. Joseph Onesta on

    I’m on board with sticking to what one thinks is the right thing to do but moral absolutism frankly frightens me. Humans, by nature, seem to be ego-centric and xenophobic. Mores are as much culturally based as they are religiously based and frankly, I no one to come up with a code that works in all situations and contexts. I suppose there may be a few universals at the base of it all but if there is, humans will need to explain them in their own context which will, as of necessity, pervert them. I am afraid of the perversions.

  5. Anonymous on

    Of course. The follower’s of Jesus’s version of morality have never had any ethical problems. Like slavery, genocide, manifest destiny, etc. Please. Moral absolutism is great if you never leave the county you were born in. If you deal with or are friends with people who don’t belong to the Western Christian tradition, you won’t understand their attitudes or behaviour (nor will you want to). Please don’t try to acertain that Christian morality is somehow “better” than other ethical systems. It’s asanine.

  6. Cristian on

    I am quite amazed by the comments to Chris’ post. Moral absolutism is similar in nature to Immoral Absolutism, both being extremes for what we call morality. If you cannot adapt your behavior according to the context, as Aristotle, Mill or Wittgenstein say, then you are doomed to make mistakes similar to those that we normally consider immoral. The 1st and 2nd cent. Christians did not regard slavery as immoral because they believed in an absolute principle that said “do not treat man as slaves”, but because they regarded human nature as deserving a certain dignity. But a killer or barbarian would loose that dignity due to the fact they alter their nature.Now, returning to the topic of Chris’ post, I do not think the three things can be operational. We do not have any element that can be used in real-life. For example, Executives believe more in gray area because their experience taught them that nothing is absolute. If they would not give a certain amount of money to a local public officer, their business would suffer because the contract at stake would be given to their competitor, strengthening his market position.And I think the authors make one big mistake in the end of their text, when they say:“Moral absolutism may sound like an archaic and austere concept, but it’s a quality all these ethical mavericks share, and it’s exactly what is needed to establish a clear, strong, unwavering voice for doing the right thing, especially when the costs are high”It is exactly the moral absolutism that determines the costs to grow. If you do not pay the public officer to give you the contract because you regard that amount of money as corruption, then you have to find other means to get other contracts. These means are time, energy and money consuming.

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