Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leaders and Hubris

Lord Acton famously observed that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is worth remembering as we sort through recent news.

The subject today is the resignation in March of Governor Spitzer. Immediately following his resignation there was a good deal of talk on TV, radio, newspapers and various blogs about ‘the why’ of Governor Spitzer actions during the last several years, visiting one particular house of ill repute a number of times while publicly railing against prostitution. Why would he take such actions – repeatedly – when he had so much to lose? Psychiatrists and psychologists are offering various explanations, even that he was sub-consciously self-destructive, that he wanted to be caught.

Governor Spitzer’s personal motivations may never be known, even if he writes a ‘tell all’ autobiography in a couple of years. But I have seen enough outrageous behavior from various leaders to recognize that at least part of the explanation for his behavior can be found in the corrupting nature of power. And there are several real lessons to be drawn from this incident by any leader of any organization.

Everyone who has acquired some power, some authority, over others is tempted by that power. Its corrupting influence is subtle and pervasive. You believe in both the correctness of your goal and your ability to achieve those goals. Actions taken to sustain and achieve your vision are justified because they move the organization closer to goal posts. Inevitably, you come to associate any decision you make as being the right one. You become special, as important as the goal itself. Anything that helps you is therefore okay. Remarkably, this can be found in the smallest of organizations as well as the largest; the Hollywood stereotype of the small-town cop who turns into a petty dictator is not a morality tale about the dangers of small towns. Rather, it is rooted in the corrosive effect power, even a little power, can have on the most normal of people.

And the same is true of everyone: power corrupts. When you start to see special rules drawn up for the senior executives of any organization, exceptions to policy that only apply to the front office, you are starting to see the corruption take place.

There are ways to fight it. (And, of course, you can always cheat on the rules.) But, no system is perfect and it will require constant effort on your part to keep everyone within the rules – particularly yourself. As the one in charge, the standards must be higher for you then for anyone else; the simple rules your mother taught may well be your best guidance: if you wouldn’t want something published on the front page – don’t do it; if you wouldn’t say or do something in front of your mother, don’t say it or do it. If you don’t want your employees (or your children) doing something, then you shouldn’t.

A few steps may help. First, if you are in charge, establish a clear, simple, and brief code of ethics: these are the rules of behavior for everyone. Let me repeat: they need to be simple and clear. Insist that everyone live by them – including you. In fact, the more senior you are, the more strict must be compliance with standards. You might want to have an organizational meeting once a year, maybe more, that addresses the rules.* However you engage in this training, remember that the training is really for those in charge. The sadly comical situation where rank and file workers are subjected to yearly ‘en masse’ ethics training while the executives have special, tailored sessions may well be an indication that you are already on the slippery slope of making exceptions for yourself and your cronies.** This sends a host of ‘wrong signals,’ each a lesson in poor leadership: leaders held to different - and lower - standards then the workers, the suggestion that ethics are variables, the indication that the leadership simply won’t go through the same things it expects of the rank and file. (The simple example of the President and CEO sitting through the training with everyone else sends a host of signals; the example of both NOT sitting through the training necessarily sends other signals.)

Second, whether you are in charge or not, find someone you can trust, who knows all your secrets, who will tell you when you are wrong, and then don’t forget why you have that person as your confidante. Whether your wife or husband, brother or sister, childhood friend or your priest, you need someone who can look you in the eye and tell you that you are doing something wrong.

Third, if you are in charge of something, draft guidelines on your authorities. Make them as simple and clear as possible. Then publish them within your organization. The guidelines should clearly spell out what you can and cannot do, what standards of behavior you should be held to by your subordinates, and what will happen if you brake the rules. Good leaders hold themselves to higher standards then they hold their subordinates. If you are not the CEO, and your organization does not have guidelines, suggest that it be done at the next big meeting. You might go on line and copy the ethics standards of some large organization. Set an example in your department, publish your own standards. And if you are not in charge, one word of advice: don’t stay in any organization that doesn’t at least try to keep its leadership in line – get out as soon as you can.

Finally, remember that your life and your career are about your goals, your vision, and not you. Repeat that as many times a day as you need to.

Remember that morals trump ethics. In a band of cutthroats ‘ethical’ behavior (the ethos of the group) includes cutting throats. Your mother’s instruction (‘Would you jump off a bridge if everyone else did?’) is a sound a piece of advice as any. Just because others do ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ might be, and even if they get away with ‘it,’ perhaps someone has found a loop-hole in the law, you will know whether it is right. If it isn’t, if it abuses your power or sets a poor example, you will also know. So, don’t do it.

In the end, no set of rules, no amount of training, no organizational provisions or structure will mean anything if you don’t commit yourself to living by higher standards. People in power don’t brake the rules because they don’t know them, they break the rules because they believe they are special, they have come to believe in themselves over and above any organization, any goals, in fact, any thing. If you already believe that you are special you can either change, or you can simply accept that some day you will be exposed. If you are ‘lucky’ you will simply be disgraced. Or, you may lose your career, perhaps your family, your business, and certainly your reputation. Your vision, your dreams, no matter how noble, will be sullied by your behavior. Your choice.
* This is not meant to be a ‘touchy-feely’ session on norms of behavior. What is needed is more akin to the weekly reading of his letters of authority by ship captains 200 years ago, during which each possible crime was listed followed by the required punishment (which ranged from lashings to death by hanging). These sessions should be pointed and painful: if you do X, you will be fired; if you do Y, you will be fired; if you do Z, you will be fired, the corporation will sue you to recover wages, and your name will be given to the appropriate federal authorities for further prosecution.

** I recently heard the story of one Fortune 500 corporation, one which does not have a blemish free recent history, holding a yearly ethics training seminar in which a large concert hall was used in order to hold all the workers, and the hall was filled to capacity as production line workers received their day-long training, while the executives, the ones who had committed the ethics violations in the past that prompted the training, and who are likely to commit the ethics violations in the future, were given their own, tailored training.


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