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Ethics of Leadership

Not this weekend, but the previous weekend there was another Leadership Academy class.  I wasn’t particularly excited about going to this one, honestly – though of course I went.  Before the class, we were to read a case and a paper about ethical issues in business.

I wasn’t excited for a couple of reasons: first, in my undergrad program, I’d taken two classes on the legal and ethical environment of business.  I took both the required Core class plus the advanced class that explored ethical issues more deeply.  Additionally, as a religious person who think deeply both about  his religion and about the moral and ethical implications of what he believes, I felt I had a pretty firm grounding in ethical issues.  The final reason I was unexcited had to do with the way business ethics is usually taught to business students: putting them in the role of a business leader facing ethical dilemmas.

Ultimately, I think this class went better than expected, but one of the main reasons that was so was that I brought up some of the points above.  The class did start with a video case study of a high-level executive faced with an ethical dilemma: a Sales VP who felt that the CEO was misrepresenting sales prospects to the Board during a Board Meeting.  What was mildly insulting about this situation is that it was presented as though there was no clear right or wrong solution, no clear black and white. 

I say “insulting” because the insinuation that the situation was really “shades of grey” obfuscates the fact that those shades are a sharply contrasting light grey and dark grey with no middle-ground.  I, personally, thought it was fairly obvious that as a high-level executive, this VP’s fiduciary responsibility to both share-holders and the Board made the right answer fairly clear.  As a class, we were presented with 3 options: discuss the issue privately with the CEO, take the issue to the Board, or do nothing at all.  “Do nothing at all”, I reasoned, was clearly an unethical choice.  Taking the issue to the CEO was unlikely to be fruitful: if the CEO is aware that he is lying, he is unlikely to be amenable to gentle correction on the issue.  Still, for proprieties sake, this would have been the necessary first step.  But going into that, I would have the full expectation that I would likely have to escalate.  Ultimately, the actual VP did just that, but not until after he’d hemmed and hawed over the ethics of going to the Board, and waited until he was contacted by a Board Member directly.  That, in my mind, was an unethical lapse.

This is often the case with high-level executive decisions.  We like to pretend their decision make is full of shades-of-grey and nuance.  In the example above, for instance, what if he’d lost his job for challenging the CEO?  Certainly, that was a risk.  But what if he had?  At that level, most executive contracts include escape clauses and severance packages and golden parachutes.  The risk of getting fired, for him, was overall not a severe one.

Now, consider an ethical situation like that from a very different perspective: a mid-to-low-level support employee who has a young family.  That person’s moral and ethical obligation is first and foremost not to shareholders, but to his family; though he does have a responsibility to shareholders, that responsibility comes to him filtered through several layers of managerial oversight.  His responsibility to them is indirect, whereas his responsibility to his family is very direct.  This mid-to-low-level employee has no escape clause, and no guarantee of a sizeable severance if he loses his job.  So, if this employee is asked, for instance, to add to his forecast some amount of money to cover a meeting of the Board at some resort in a Caribbean Island, what does he do?  What’s ethical? 

Let’s say this employee doesn’t think that a meeting of the Board in a Caribbean resort is the best use of the shareholder’s investments – especially during a Recession, at a time when employee benefits have slowly been eroding away to cost-savings initiatives.  Does he meet privately with the CEO or with members of the Board?  No; the very idea is preposterous if there are multiple layers of management separating him from the Chief Executive.  Nor does he go to an outside agency: there is nothing illegal about this Board Meeting.  He might consider informing a shareholder’s rights watchdog, but his non-disclosure and confidentiality statements, signed at the moment of his employment, may make that option ethically dubious.  Ultimately, he does what he must to ensure continued good relations with his immediate supervisors, protecting his job.  He will probably warn his supervisor that this is not a good use of the business’s funds, but he knows nothing will come of this complaint – his boss has no more authority over this decision than he does!

These are the kinds of situations that involve real shades-of-grey and nuance in ethical decision making, where the obligation to employer, to family, and to self-consistent ethics collide, and where options are few.  This is the crucible where ethical leaders are either born or lose their way in the mire.  It’s easy to justify doing something a little grey when the personal stakes have very high personal risk.  And once you start down that path, it’s easy to lose all perspective.

But for those who will become principled, ethical leaders, these are they who considered deeply, before entering the fire, where they stand on their moral and ethical principles.  These are they who have drawn the line that they will not cross, who know where it lies, and know the warning signs of when they are coming close to it.

That’s why, ultimately, it’s important for people in my position to think deeply about where we stand on ethical issues.  But not only from a high, C-level perspective.  It’s hard to know how you’ll really react at a C-level until you’ve done your time in the mid-level mines.  So, our ethical education needs to start here, where we live, and examine the problems that we actually face in our day-to-day.

PM Class for the Week of 2/22

A quick update from my PM class.  This week most of the time in the class was focused on an organized debate over the assertion that “The best person to lead a project is someone with deep area knowledge” with the idea that “deep area knowledge” was expertise in the specific field in which the project takes place.  So, in other words we might suggest that the best person to lead a software design project is someone with programming experience or the best person to lead a nuclear plant construction project is a nuclear engineer or the best person to lead a cross-disciplinary multi-function change initiative at a corporation is, well, there’s where the argument breaks down.

A formal “Pro” and “Con” team were tasked with presenting the two sides of the issue.  The nuclear plant example came from the Pro team and was an excellent example of a project needing someone with deep area knowledge.  But a Nuclear Plant project hardly exemplifies the average or common project.  On the Con side, the rebuttal made another very valid point: is the best person to lead a home construction project a plumber?  Or an electrician? Or a carpenter?  You don’t want someone who has deep experience in so narrow a field, but someone with general knowledge of the industry.  Both sides effectively argued, however, that whether you are looking for deep area expertise or general industry knowledge, what is crucial for project success is expertise in Project Management.  That means understanding how tasks must be organized, how to allocate resources, and how to communicate everything about the project to the project team and other stakeholders.

It’s this multi-disciplinary approach that I find most interesting about Project Management.  There’s a lot of overlap, conceptually, between effective Project Management and effective Leadership.  I think I could bring a lot to the table in that sense, if given the chance.

In the end, in my opinion, the two debate teams were at a draw.  It was clear from the examples presented, in my opinion, that there were situations where the best leader was also someone with very specific expertise in their field.  But it was also evident to me that there were situations where hiring someone with such a narrow field of expertise could be detrimental to a project.  The old adage goes “if you give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail”.  A person with deep area expertise is like a man with a hammer, but unless you’re working on a project where every problem really is a nail (and those projects do exist, though they are not the majority), this person’s narrow perspective may not be the most effective for the project.

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My Renaissance

In considering how I spend my time, and whether I am making progress toward my goals and expressing my potential for “genius”, I’m forced to think both more deeply and more broadly about what I do.

One of the challenges I struggle with, personally, is the sense I have of a lack of meaning in my job.  I often feel that what I do there, right now, has little or no measurable or positive impact for the company that employs me.  The question that arises is whether this is because I am personally bored by my job, because I am not fulfilled by the work that I do, or because there are barriers in my job that prevent my work from adding value.  Certainly my employer did not hire me with the intention that I not do any work of value.  But I wonder, if I were to leave tomorrow, what would happen?  The immediate consequence would be that (until I was replaced) my department would be unable to fulfill its role in providing accurate and timely analysis of forecasted financial expenditures.  The consequence of that would be that the CFO and other financial directors in my company would not have some of the information they need in discussions with other decision-makers in the company.  The supposition that this would be of detriment to the company, however, is based on the assumption that this financial information is very useful to the primary decision makers in making their decisions.  I frequently have the sense that it is not.  This leads me to wonder, is there something more I can be doing in my job that would be more useful or valuable than generating financial forecasts that are of limited worth?  If I don’t find financial analysis fulfilling, what fields would I find more fulfilling?  Are those fields of worth and value to either my current or future employer?  If I can’t make a meaningful impact at my current company, is there some place else where my efforts will be more meaningful?

The purpose of that train of thought is to illustrate two things.  The  first is that it is difficult to understand and measure the impact that we can have, because it depends on a lot that is outside our control.  The second is that analyzing what we do and how we do it might, hopefully, lead us to finding ways of doing something better.  And if there are impediments outside our control, in our current situation, that prevent us from doing better, then perhaps we can change our situation.

This leads me to a simple conclusion: at the end of the day, I need to feel like I’ve done some good, that I’ve made some progress toward my goal of expressing my genius by improving those around me. 

Genius, in its most commonly understood sense, is in the act of creating something of lasting value and meaning.  Creation, itself, is genius.  That creative potential exists within each of us, and I know it exists within me.  When we think of geniuses, our thoughts turn first to those whose impact has been monumental, even global: the Leonardo da Vincis and Albert Einsteins and Martin Luther Kings and their ilk.  We follow those names closely with the names of those who have had more profound and personal impacts on ourselves and others more like us.  I might add J. R. R. Tolkein to my list, or John Williams, and even Robert Jordan.  Their impacts are more narrow in scope, but no less meaningful to those individuals who have been affected by them.  But rarely do we consider the quiet geniuses whose impact is most often felt only at the personal level: mothers and fathers, teachers, friends, mentors, ecclesiastical leaders, community leaders, and peers.  But in each of these roles, great and small, we have endless opportunities to create moments, circumstances, and means by which the lives of others are improved.  This privilege, this responsibility, is not limited to those only of great intellect or immense natural talents.

The Leonardo exhibit highlighted one thing very clearly: that genius like that of Leonardo da Vinci doesn’t exist without context.  It doesn’t arise in a vacuum.  Each of us is influenced and improved by the genius of others.  And each of us has the potential to influence and improve others around us.  This is the purpose of nearly all worthwhile human endeavors: a virtuous cycle of continuous betterment.  That I can apply myself to this task is my hope.  That is my renaissance.

A Study of Genius

As I studied the works of Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries, mentors, and students, I found my thoughts turning inward.  What have I accomplished?  What is the meaning of my work and my life?  Have I touched and influenced the hearts and minds of others as Leonardo’s is now touching mine?  Will my accomplishments and works be worthy of remembrance in a mere hundred years from now, let alone six hundred years or a thousand? 

I thought about my own works and endeavors: the story I’ve worked on this past month, the book I’ve been writing and rewriting for however many years.  Would I ever finish this book?  Would any of my writings see publication?  Does that even matter?  I thought about my career, my MBA, my indecision about a PhD, my family.  I wondered if I’ll be able to make something of myself in my career that will be of any lasting value to the organizations I work for, or especially to my family.  I worry, frequently, that I won’t figure out what I want to do with my career or that I won’t be able to fully support my family (and the clock is ticking on that; I graduate in just over a year, and will need to have figured out how to leverage my MBA by then).  I was simultaneously awed, humbled and, to a certain degree, jealous of the natural (and unduplicatable) talents of those geniuses on display. 

At the end of the exhibit was an installation that meditated on the nature of genius.  It asked questions like “What are the qualities of a genius?”, “Who is a genius?”, and “Can anyone be a genius?”  It included videos of responses from prominent locals answering those and other questions, a wall of answers to those questions from visitors to the exhibit, and a wall of quotes from famous people – many of them geniuses in their own right – from throughout history.    I was struck by a few things from this part of the exhibit that reinformed my previous thoughts and suggested something positive.  One was a quote by Edgar Allan Poe: “The true genius shudders at incompleteness…”  Another were some of the responses of various visitors to the exhibit (although, oddly, I found the answers of prominent and successful locals to be rather uncompelling and uninspired).  

These suggested to me two thoughts about genius, and the nature of our gifts and talents: one was that a genius is someone who, through talent, hard work, and perseverance, has a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others.  That the magnitude of the genius might be measured by the number of lives impacted and the degree to which they were impacted is perhaps irrelevant to the question of the existence of genius in an individual.  While true that many people may live out their lives in anonymity and perchance squander the opportunities before them to improve their surroundings and their fellow man, this need not be so and, indeed, is not so for countless others, myself included, if we but strive to apply what talents we do have for the betterment of others.  In my way, while I hope to one day say that my written fiction will be had for the betterment of its readers (if only by way of entertaining them), the more immediate concern is the betterment of my family and, to a lesser degree, my employer.   That I must strive to help my wife succeed in whatever ventures she embarks (be that motherhood or career or, as the case may be, both), to teach my child (or children) good lessons so that he, too, may succeed, and to leave my employer each day with some meaningful measure of value each day is the lesson here.  To the degree that I am not succeeding in any of these activities, much less that my written work may or may not be of any value as yet, then I must rededicate myself to these goals and find ways of achieving them that are consistent with my values. 

The second thought is this: that this work of “genius” can be achieved, but only by the means of applying effort to completion. I won’t succeed at any of these goals unless I actively pursue them.  “Incompleteness” is a child of sloth, but also of misdirected action.  To achieve these goals, I need to make sure that how I spend my time each day, week, and month is aligned with my goals.  Where I am spending time on fruitless activities, that is an opportunity to reexamine what I am doing and redirect myself toward something with higher rewards.  This requires real introspection.

Tomorrow, I conclude my thoughts on the Da Vinci exhibit.