Ethics and effectiveness: the nature of good leadership
3:30 pm Thursday 7 May 2015
Professor Joanne B Ciulla
Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond
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There are two questions that we often ask about leadership. The first one is what is leadership? And this is essentially a descriptive question and we might answer it quite simply, we might say that leadership is about getting people, getting other people to do things. Or it is about achieving a certain end, you know setting a goal and achieving it.
Second question, I think is more difficult to answer, and that is, what is good leadership? And that is automatically a question of value here, good. A normative question, it recognises that leadership is concerned with the needs and aspirations of human beings who live and work together in communities or in organisations. It’s a question that is not just about outcomes, about success and achieving a goal, but it is about process. It’s about the relationship between leaders and followers and it’s about which goal is in fact pursued in the first place.
In other words this question, what is good leadership, presupposes that leadership, as I said right at the beginning of the day when I introduced Kerry Schott, leadership is concerned with ethics.
So does that mean that a good leader is always an ethical leader at all times and all places? Where does the concept of good leadership overlap with other adjectives that we might use, like effective leadership, or successful leadership? This is the sort of territory that we are going to explore as we conclude our first day of the conference and we are very lucky to have, as our guide into this territory, one of the world’s leading thinkers on leadership ethics, business ethics and the philosophy of work.
Professor Joanne Ciulla holds the Coston Family Chair in Leadership Ethics at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, a school she helped to found at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Professor Ciulla is also President of the International Society for Business Economics and Ethics. She is widely published, much in demand as an international speaker on ethics and she has held academic appointments at some of the world’s leading business schools, including the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School and as the UNESCO Chair in Leadership Studies at the United Nations International Leadership Academy in Jordan. She has been a visiting scholar at many universities including Oxford and the University of Melbourne. So Professor Ciulla is not unfamiliar with Australia.
And as well as listening to all of the presentations at the conference today, she has spent the last few days meeting with other people in the New South Wales public service so she could understand the context of local concerns and issues.
So please welcome our international keynote speaker, Professor Joanne Ciulla, to address the topic ‘Ethics and effectiveness: the nature of good leadership’.
Thank you. And I just want to say how delighted I am to be here. When Graeme invited me, one of the things that I wrote back was sure I’ll come, because I always love to come to Australia. I don’t like getting here, but I like being here. It’s an important distinction. And yesterday I had a fascinating day talking to people about the program that they have been working on involving ethics and I have to say that I am very impressed by it. It is a really thoughtful program and I hope that all of you would find some of their work useful to you in your organisations.
So, I am a philosopher, and we philosophers are very proud of the fact that we are good at questions but not at answers. But we are going to talk about two kinds of things in this. We are going to talk about you, we are going to talk about the question, why is it difficult to be an ethical leader? What makes it difficult to be an ethical leader?
And there are a lot of books on leadership, particularly in the business sector that are all about how wonderful leaders are, you know we could all name the fact that yes leaders should have integrity, they should be honest, they should be fair, we can make that list. But that is not actually very interesting. What is really interesting are what are the ethical challenges of leadership, so I am going to talk about that in the first part.
In the second part I am going to talk about ethics and effectiveness. And by the way this is my school, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, which is a liberal arts school of leadership studies. We study leadership in all different sectors. We look at it as a phenomenon; we are not a business school. And we don’t do leadership training per se, we just look at leadership. And leadership is part of the human condition, it is how human beings organise themselves, how they supply the needs that they have in society because we are pretty pathetic on our own. We just couldn’t live if we didn’t have other people to help us to get the things that we need from life.
So I’m going to take you back, and what I did was I began by digging up the oldest civil servant I could find to give you some advice. So we are going to start by looking at the issues related to you, then we will move on to talk a little bit about ethics and effectiveness.
So here is an old civil servant, he has got a nice skirt on here and a necklace too. This is from his tomb. This is a man named Ptah-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep was a vizier, he was an adviser to the pharaoh and he wrote the oldest book in the world. And the oldest book in the world, by that I mean the oldest paper book surviving. It is on papyrus and it’s The Wisdom of Ptah-Hotep. And I want to start off by reading his advice to a public servant. And one of the things that is really fascinating in history is the fact that people haven’t changed that much in their expectations, the moral expectations of our leadership haven’t changed that much. So let’s read what the legend Ptah-Hotep has to say to you.
He says: ‘If you are a man who leads, who controls the affairs of the many, seek out every beneficent deed that your conduct may be blameless. If you are among the people gain supporters through being trusted. The trusted man who does not vent his belly’s speech, he will himself become a leader’.
Then he goes on and he says ‘If you are employed in the larit’ – now a larit in Ancient Egypt, these were the big storage bins where they stored grain for famine times, so this is like the government treasury for the people. So – ‘if you are employed in the larit, stand or sit rather than walk about. Lay down rules for yourself from the first, not to absent yourself even when weariness overtakes you’. Important advice – no sleeping on the job. And then he says, ‘Keep an eye on him who enters announcing that what he asks is a secret. What is entrusted to you is above appreciation and all contrary argument is no matter to be rejected. He is a God who penetrates into a place where no relaxation of the rules is made for the privileged’.
Sounds pretty straightforward. This segment you might want to read along with me.
The last part, which is really interesting: ‘If you have become great after having been little, if you have become rich after having been poor – when you are at the head of the city know how not to take advantage of the fact that you have reached the first rank. Harden not your heart because of your elevation. You are only the administrator, the prefect, of the provisions which belong to Ptah, the God. Put not behind you the neighbour who is like you; be unto him as a companion’.
This last part is kind of surprising coming from, you think of Ancient Egypt as hierarchical, but you know, just don’t get too big for your shoes, and we know that is a big problem with a lot of leaders, is they get a little too big for their shoes. So let’s look at someone else.
Now I’m a philosopher so I can’t really give a talk without talking about Plato. This is nice, Raphael’s picture of Plato’s Academy. Plato, he wasn’t a civil servant, but in today’s world he would be called a leadership coach. And he coached Dionysius II, who was the tyrant who ran Syracuse on the island of Sicily. And Plato thought quite a bit about leadership and the idea of self-interest, which has come up again and again in this conference: that obviously self-interested leaders are usually kind of corrupt, we don’t like them and they are definitely not good. And he offers us this interesting challenge which will help you to understand why you don’t trust politicians.
He says in a city of good men came into being the citizens would fight in order not to rule. There would be clear that anyone who is really a true ruler doesn’t by nature seek his own advantage but that of his subjects. And everyone knowing this would rather be benefited by others than take the trouble to benefit them.
So it’s kind of depressing because it says that if you were an ethical person and lived in an ethical society you’d have to be out of your mind to want to be the leader. Now it is really a provocative statement and the reason why, as Plato realised, being a leader is hard. And in the dialogue by the way, there is a protagonist that says, ‘oh you know it’s great to be the leader, you know you get all the power, you get all the money, you can give your friends favours. You can be the big man around town, probably get a lot of women too, it’s a good job being a leader’.
Plato’s response, or Socrates’ response is no, no, no. He says that might be fine if you want to be an unethical leader, if you want to be an ethical leader plan on staying up, not being able to sleep at night. Plan on having your friends and family and the people you work with mad at you. In other words if you want to be loved by everyone, if you want to be an ethical leader and you want to be loved by anyone, get a dog.
So it is interesting and one of the reasons we don’t trust politicians, nowadays, is because politicians have to go through all sorts of difficult things to get elected. I don’t if you know much about American elections but you have got to raise millions and millions of dollars, it’s terrible. You are under tremendous scrutiny. So we always wonder do those people understand the moral obligations of leadership. To be an ethical leader you have got to be ready for a lot of difficult times.
So Plato is extremely useful in thinking about it. And then he adds one interesting caveat. He says there is one condition that makes good men want to lead. And he says it’s fear of punishment. And the punishment is that someone worse than you will lead. And this explains what is called the reluctant leader, that we often like people who are reluctant to be leaders and take over because people want them to and that you feel it is for the good of the organisation. So I think Plato gives us an interesting insight, but he is joined by other people.
Self-control is a very important part of leadership, and here is another civil servant, Confucius. Confucius was a civil servant for the Duke of Lu, and before he became a teacher, Confucius realised was that leadership requires a tremendous amount of self-control. I mean, you work with people you can’t stand sometimes, and you have got to be polite and you have got to be dignified. Running around yelling and screaming – Ptah-Hotep tells you it is a really bad idea to go around screaming and yelling at people, it’s a bad idea.
And what Confucius says is if you set yourself right you will be followed without command. I mean nobody likes to follow crazy leaders, right? But if they don’t your commands won’t be obeyed. So the whole issue about how you get yourself under control is fundamental to leadership.
And then here we have the big red head. Now I think you are all familiar with people who have big red heads, ego. The interesting thing about being a leader is the way we treat leaders. Leaders are given privileges. They are shown difference and in different societies that level of difference changes. But it was kind of interesting, I was talking to someone a little while ago who had just become dean of a law school and I asked her, I said – and she had worked at the law school as a teacher for fifteen years – and I said, ‘what’s it like to be a dean?’. And she said, ‘you know, it’s really strange’ – because she’s been working with these people for a long time – ‘all of a sudden everybody treats me differently, and worst of all, I get less information’. Right?
So we treat leaders differently. So it is very, very easy for leaders to start to think they are special and that is where a lot of corruption comes in. Because when leaders think they are special they think they are not subject to the same rules as everyone else. And there are lots of scandals in business and in government because people don’t think they have to do things like fill out their expense forms in the same way that their other employees have to.
So there is a lot of exception-making that is problematic. So here is old Lao Tzu, who also had a few things to say about leadership, and I think that maybe in Canberra and in Australia, and in Washington, this should be in everyone’s fortune cookie, right: ‘He who stands on tiptoe is not steady’.
But then there is a whole other package of problems that make it difficult to be an ethical leader. I mean they really challenge the self in terms of, you know, how you are treated, what is expected of you and other things and that gets to this story. And this is a nice painting by the way, Jan Massys, it’s a huge painting in the Louvre. This is a story that comes from the Old Testament the story of David and Bathsheba, some of you are probably familiar with it. The Old Testament, so here we are talking 1000–800 BC so we are still in old times. This is a remarkable story as a leadership case study. King David is one of the most written about people in the Bible, you meet him in the David and Goliath story that everybody knows and it’s kind of interesting because whoever wrote that, or how the story came down to us, so forget about the even religious aspect, just as a text and a narrative, it’s a fascinating story because it tells us a whole lot about what people expect from leaders. We even get God’s leadership selection process in that story.
In the story, David and Goliath, David is this puny little shepherd, by the way in all ancient literature the image for leaders is shepherds to flocks, and that’s important. And he is not actually the best person to pick to be a champion against a giant Philistine named Goliath. He is probably the worst person you can pick. But he wants to do it and as the word comes down as the story, he has a good heart and that qualifies him. So then after than in the Bible, and you know how the Bible often lists things, there’s the begetting list, someone begat so and so and then there’s all the wars that people fought, there’s whole lists. So King David has won all of those wars, he is a terrific leader, he is a super leader, God really likes him so everything is good.
And then we get to this story, which if anything is a sordid soap opera in the middle of the Old Testament. Because here is King David he comes home from the battle. So King David is up here, see the guy in the balcony, that’s Kind David right. Comes home from battle, now if you are in the ancient world, kings always run the front with their men when they were fighting battles, so in ancient sensibility when reading this story, is that there is something terribly wrong when the king is at home when his men are fighting a battle. And he sleeps late and looks out he sees this woman bathing, I don’t know why she is bathing on her porch, but she is. Sees this woman bathing, has her brought to him and seduces her, and he discovers that she is the wife of his best general, oops.
So then he has got this huge problem, right? And listen to the thought pattern, because it fits a whole lot of sex scandals, everywhere. So then he has got a problem, how am I going to cover it up? And he says, very simple, I’ll just call her husband home, he’s at the front, he’ll come home, stay with his wife, problem solved. You know, they don’t know whose kid it is. So he brings home her husband, a man named Uriah, and here is where we get this incredible connection to the past in terms of what is ethically expected of a leader. Uriah comes home and King David says, you know have some wine, go see your wife and have a good time. And Uriah turns to David and he says, how can I do that with my men at the front? And he refuses to go to his wife. He refuses to drink the wine. And King David tries several times and he says no. It is a really interesting commentary on the moral expectations of leaders and where leaders ought to be. So what happens? The usual in these stories, right? So there’s a sex scandal with the leader and they try to cover it up, and it doesn’t work, so they try to cover it up again, and the cover up is often worse than the crime.
In this case what King David does is that he calls in another general called Joab and he says Joab I want you to go to the front, I want Uriah’s men to attack and I want your men behind them, and as soon as Uriah’s men start to engage with the enemy, I want you to pull back. So he basically leads Bathsheba’s husband to his death. And then there is a whistle-blower in the story, just as there are in scandals. The whistle-blower is a prophet named Nathan. And so Nathan goes to see David, and instead of just saying I know what you did, he says let me tell you a story. There was a shepherd in this town, and he only had one sheep, and he loved his sheep, and he took very good care of him. And then there was a rich man in town who had lots of sheep, and the rich man decided to have a party, and he took this poor shepherd’s sheep, slaughtered it and fed it to his guests. And so King David says, who is this man?
And he says this man is you. And then all hell breaks loose as it does in the Bible. David gets all sorts of punishments and all sorts of bad things happen. So some enterprising scholars took this story and wanted to break it down to some of the moral hazards of leadership, and they call it the Bathsheba Syndrome. And the Bathsheba Syndrome is about how leaders run amok, not just because they have power, but because they are successful. So it is an interesting lesson for us today when we think about several things.
First of all, people who have been very successful in their career, like King David. Success has an interesting effect on people. Nobody actually prepares you to be successful, so what happens when you are successful? Well, you find that it is easy to do your job, you can do it in cruise control, basically. You become more isolated, so maybe you start out your job you walk around, you talk to people in your organisation, you do things, but then after a while you sit in your office more. You don’t do much and of course when you become isolated you start to lose perspective. And of course King David has control over resources, he can send people out to get beautiful women who are bathing, he can send people to the front, so he has got control over resources. And he also starts to think, here he is, he has come back from the front, I’ve got this job down. I have figured it all out and I am kind of going to kick back. And then there is this notion of self-rewarding. Some people in their jobs they have been doing a good job, things have been going well, they say ‘I need a little treat’. In this case Bathsheba was the treat.
But I need a little treat, and it can be any number of things – you know, we have talked about some scandals today, whether it is giving funds to schools and using it to buy cases of wine or whatever. That there is a self-rewarding behaviour.
And then, this is the really interesting one, loss of strategic focus. What I love about this painting, King David, up in the balcony is literally looking in the wrong place as a leader. He should be looking to the front and he is watching a women bathe. So very often in jobs, people who have been in jobs for a long time, lose their strategic focus. What are we supposed to be doing? What is our goal, what is our mission, what are we supposed to be delivering?
And then this last one is a really interesting one that shows up in a lot of public scandals. I mean aren’t you amazed sometimes when there is a scandal with a politician or a business person or someone else and you say, ‘how did they think they could possibly get away with that?’. I mean, it is extraordinary, especially with the media today, how can they do it? Well if people have been very successful they actually begin to believe they can control all sorts of outcomes that they can’t.
We had a very funny case in America of the Governor of South Carolina, he had a girlfriend in Argentina and he decided to sneak out of the country and go visit his girlfriend and not tell anybody where he was. Now you can imagine a Governor of a State, out of a State that, by the way, gets lots of hurricanes and things, out of the State, not telling people where he was, and thinking he could sneak out of the country with passport controls and everything else. And you sort of go, ‘what is this guy thinking of? I mean how could anybody possibly do something like that?’. And yet, they do.
So these are some of the kinds of interesting challenges that happen when you are a leader and when you are successful. And of course, you can’t talk about leadership without talking about power. People don’t like to talk about power. If you don’t like power just think of power as influence, okay, power or influence. But power is a very interesting thing and we know that it can corrupt people but there are lots of different kinds of power. And power is a fluid notion so even in an organisation, sometimes different people have power.
So what is power? Well usually we think of power as your job title, legitimate power, right? So we think of presidents or commissioners or whomever, but that is actually the least interesting kind of leadership. I mean, just because you are president of something doesn’t mean you are leading it. Now that might sound odd but a lot of people who hold positions of power aren’t necessarily leading. There are often people who don’t hold positions of power who have much more influence over people’s ideas and what happens.
And we often forget this because you say, well, I’m just a lowly person here and there are all these people above me. Everybody has sources of power.
Now the second one is also one that most of us don’t have, well maybe some of you do. The power to reward and punish. This is the power that money can have. If you have a lot money, you can have a huge amount of influence in different ways. And if you are running a business you can threaten to punish. If you don’t get your way you can move your business away. So reward and punishment is one.
But here’s where you all come in: expert power. You can be very powerful if you know stuff. I mean there are times in certain organisations: for example, President Obama loves his Blackberry. Now if his Blackberry breaks there is a moment in the Oval Office where the tech person has more power than the President. There are a lot of really interesting studies of leaders and physicians. There are times when physicians are incredibly powerful – look at the history of leaders like Roosevelt who was very sick in office. Woodrow Wilson, one of our Presidents. So expertise gives you power in an organisation and this gets, we have had some discussion about facts and things like that. Being an expert is a source of power that is open to anyone.
Family name — certainly in a lot of other countries we see this more. Americans like to think that family name doesn’t mean much but all you have to do is look at our recent political history and realise family name is a source of power, Clintons, Bushes, Kennedys, etc. So family name, even though we are in democracies, still has some play. And actually in a lot of parts of the world, family name is pretty much what leadership is about. It doesn’t mean you are good at leading. And one of the reasons family name is powerful, nowadays we call it name recognition instead of nepotism. I love the word nepotism by the way. Did you know that the word nepotism comes from the Italian word nipote and it was a word that was derived from a time in which Popes used to have lots of children and they used to refer to them all as their nephews. And they’d make them cardinals, and it was wonderful, and that is where the word ‘nepotism’ comes from. Anyway I digress.
One of the things that family name does it gives you a network of people and that is one of the reasons they are powerful. But network power is one of the most interesting sources of power open to everyone today. Terrorists certainly take advantage of it. Network power, who do you know, how do you use the kinds of social media and communications to contact a lot of people inside an organisation, if you’re not a terrorist. How can you get into a network of people that allow you to do what you need to do? And that network can be people who are in different parts of government, the network can be just about anywhere. But people who have a good network have a kind of power that can be very, very useful and certainly useful at getting work done.
The interesting one referent power, when people study leadership, particularly Americans, we love to talk about charismatic leaders. Americans like our leaders to be like movie stars and we want them to have a lot of pizzazz, but referent leadership, referent power, is the power of personality. There are just some personalities in your organisation that, because they are likable, because people get along well with them, they are able to get a lot done. So there is power in terms of how your personality works.
And then the last source of power, and the one I think is the most interesting, and the one we most often forget is moral power. Moral power almost sounds sort of odd, especially if you are uncomfortable with the word ‘power’. But I have had the opportunity to teach in a lot of different parts of the world, and I always ask people the same question, and I always get the same answer, no matter what country I am in. And that is, ‘who are the great leaders in history?’. Gandhi is always one or two, just about anywhere you go. Martin Luther King shows up, Gandhi shows up, Nelson Mandela shows up. And then it depends, if I am in the Middle East, Mohammad always shows up; in some places in America, Jesus shows up.
But you say what do these leaders have in common? Well they don’t have any of these sources of power. Well maybe, I don’t know if they all have referent power, personality power, but they all have moral power. They have moral power big time. Now it is hard to say, okay, what does that have to do with me, I am not Nelson Mandela, I am not in those circumstances. What we often forget is the sheer power of moral action. And one of the things that happens, we talked about earlier today, the issue of courage.
What is interesting about moral courage is that you can become more morally courageous when you remember that people admire and actually want to join people who engage in moral actions, as frightening as they are. But, I mean, if cross-culturally people can look at certain leaders and say, they’re the best when they have none of these traditional notions of power, it tells you something about the power of morality. So there is power in moral action.
Okay, so now, let’s shift gears a little. Here is a nice train falling through a window. This is somewhere in France. Here are some peculiarities about leadership, the role of a leader. Leaders are responsible for things they don’t do. So if your neighbour down the street does something bad, it is not your fault, but if one of the people who works with you does, it is your fault. Because part of what we say to leaders is that leaders have to take responsibility.
You are not responsible for them in the literal sense of the word, but you have to take responsibility, and we all know how bad leaders look when they don’t. I remember Rupert Murdoch when they were talking about the scandal with the wire tapping in England and Rupert Murdoch got up there and said, ‘well I never had anything to do with it’. And it was like, Rupert, come on, it’s your organisation, you can’t say that. President Obama, it was sort of funny when our health care program was initiated, the computers didn’t work, and President Obama got up there and said, well he didn’t say ‘I didn’t program the computers’, he got up there and he said, ‘well it is my responsibility, it is my fault that it didn’t work’. That is what we expect of leaders.
So they have a highly sensitive moral role in that when you become a leader you take on responsibility. And now we get to the heart of the issue. So structurally, if I were to say to you, what is the most, what is the framework for thinking about ethics and leadership? It would be this issue of ethics and effectiveness. That you all have a job to do, and you’ve got to get the job done, but you have to do it the right way, you have to do it in an ethical way. We have known of many leaders who were very effective but not very ethical, and we have known of leaders who were very ethical and not very effective. In America, the latter I like to call the ‘Jimmy Carter problem’.
Jimmy Carter was a highly ethical person, but he couldn’t get a darn thing done, and he was very unlucky as a President as well. So the real interesting question is, I set this up as a dichotomy, to really say, what is really interesting is to understand how ethics relates to effectiveness. Because certainly in some sectors people tend to think that they’re very different things.
The other interesting thing about leaders, and this idea about ethics and effectiveness I actually got from Machiavelli, this is Botticelli’s drawing of Machiavelli. A lot of people think of Machiavelli as immoral – I think as Machiavelli as a moralist in a funny sense of the word. How many of you have ever read The Prince in school? All right, I have some Machiavellians in here. The Prince is a really interesting text because in it, what Machiavelli is saying, is, here is the problem with leadership. You are responsible for a whole lot of stuff going on, you know, there is a city state that is at war, people’s lives are disrupted, there’s a lot at stake and how you behave. But you have got to deal with people like Cesare Borgia, who is a butcher, and he is horrible, and he doesn’t keep promises, and he doesn’t do any of these things.
So you have a problem, and he said, the leader’s problem is they have a high moral obligation to be responsible, they should be ethical; but then Machiavelli says sometimes leaders have to learn how to be bad. Sounds terrible, right? And the interesting thing is we actually hire leaders to do some dirty work for us. So we hate them when they do something bad to try to do something good, there is a kind of paradox in this, but that is kind of part of their job. So this is not to justify leaders doing bad things but to say that even at lesser levels, even if you are not a prince in Renaissance Italy there are often cases where leaders do have to get their hands a bit dirty. And that makes leadership a morally dangerous occupation. And it is morally dangerous because you can say well in this case I have to deal with this terrorist or I have to deal with this horrible person, and the real trick is that you can’t use that as an excuse to be expedient and to be unethical in other areas.
So this notion of self-control and yet at the same time the tremendous levels of obligation to get the work done, to get things accomplished, to keep people from harm sometimes, is one, I think, of the greatest burdens of leadership. And I think Machiavelli was absolutely right in the sense that this is one of the great moral challenges of leadership, and certainly the challenge of ethics and effectiveness.
I want to give you three questions that illustrate this issue of ethics and effectiveness. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it the right way? And am I doing it for the right reason? These are three levels of ethics and I want to give you two little caselets to illustrate them.
Right after 9/11, I read an article in The New York Times business pages, and it was about a head of a law firm who had offices in one of the towers that was hit. And what the article said was that this fellow, within three hours of that plane hitting the towers, had gotten himself office space: eight hundred desks and four hundred computers, and was up and running the next day. So you sort of read it and have some mixed emotions about what that’s all about, so you know, on the one hand you might ask is he the greediest lawyer around, is he an ambulance-chaser? Then you want to know, what about his employees? Is he making traumatised people come to work, well that wouldn’t be very good would it? Then you wonder well why did he do it?
So we want to know was this the right thing for him to do, we want to know how did he do it? Is he forcing people to come to work or maybe for some people going to work is the therapeutic thing to do after such a trauma? We want to know is he doing it the right way, is he offering counselling for his employees, is he making coming to work optional?
And then, what is the reason? So if the reason is he doesn’t want to lose an hour of billing, or even worse, if he figures there will be lot of lawsuits after this, so we want to be ready to take on new clients, well you feel different about the whole story, depending upon how those three questions are answered. And the challenge of leadership is getting all three right, and sometimes, they only get two out of three right. And a lot of it has to do with doing things the right way.
So let me give you a second caselet. This was about an aid agency in Switzerland that decided it wanted to do something about the slavery in Sudan, child slavery in Sudan. And so, I mean, everybody would like to do something about child slavery in Sudan, so that’s not a really controversial thing. But they decided that what they would do is raise money, and then, they would buy the children out of slavery. Now I ask you, is this a good idea? And this was in The Economist, and it would be a funny story if it wasn’t so sad a story. What happened of course is the price of the child slave in Sudan went from $35 per head to $75 a head. And then some very entrepreneurial people just kept reselling themselves out of slavery. So they created a market for slavery, and it was a disaster. The whole program was a disaster.
So we look at our questions here. I don’t think anybody would disagree that it’s wrong to have slavery. I mean that is uncontroversial, so the right reasons, okay. The right way? Well big time the wrong way, right? A really stupid thing to do. And then the right thing, if we look at the end product of what they did we discover they actually increased slavery instead of decreasing slavery, so they had an unintended consequence.
Now we have a saying for this: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. And in your own work life have you ever worked with someone and you can’t tell if they are unethical or stupid? You kind of go back and forth on it, and if you find yourself asking that question, it is because you see that there is an interrelationship between competency and ethics. I mean, it is fascinating that leadership is not a profession like medicine or law. And if you had a doctor or a surgeon who killed his patients all the and just kept practising surgery it would be pretty clear that they are unethical. But is rather surprising how long people get to stay in leadership roles and destroy their organisations or their countries. I mean there are lots of leaders today who are just in a very short time destroying their countries and they are still there.
So what we see here is that these three questions are crucial for making any kind of ethical decision and they really mark, I think, the different levels of morality. Now ironically there are cases where you can’t get all three right. And I think those again are the kinds of very difficult decisions that leaders have to make.
Now one of the studies, they asked me to bring up something new, bring something new and different to you. So I was, have to have met one of the authors of this study, and the study is called Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession. This was done by two people in the Army War College. And what it talks about in terms of this question of ethics and effectiveness is very much related to public service, in any kind of public service organisation. We talked about the relationship between ethics and the law, and here I want to talk about rules. Because you work under a whole set of rules and regulations that really form the way that you do your jobs.
So what they wanted to do, as the army is also a bureaucracy, and there’s lots of rules and regulations, huge amounts of resources over the past few years have gone to the army, a lot of it wasted. And so they went and they interviewed people and they talked to them about how they think about regulations. And what they found was absolutely fascinating. They found, first of all, what they called ‘ethical fading’.
If you have a lot of rules and regulations, often we think we are going to come up with the perfect regulation that is going to fix a problem that has come up. But there are often a lot of unintended consequences of those regulations, and sometimes if those regulations are made, over here the people who have to live with those regulations find them difficult.
What they discovered in this was something called ‘ethical fading’. An example, there is supposed to be a huge number of training days in the military, and all the senior officers have to make sure their men or women go through training. Well, the requirements were really too high for people to actually fill. So they interviewed people about this, and they started to discover that there is a tremendous amount of lying that goes on in the military. Why? Because the regulations are difficult to fill, they are almost impossible to fill. So one of them they interviewed said he walked into a senior officer’s office and he found him at the printer and he was printing out all of these certificates. And he said ‘what are those?’ and he said ‘I am doing training’. And basically he was printing out certificates to say his men had done the training and was going to give them to him.
Now you can imagine the impact that has on leadership. Now this notion of ethical fading is that there are a lot of instances of that, where the notion of right and wrong – I mean clearly the simple principle is the guy is lying, he is saying people went through training when they didn’t go through training – but he is lying and he feels justified in lying, so the principle of lying to fade and quote, and you’ve heard your kids say this, ‘but mum, everybody does it’. Right? All the kids do it and in America it is always ‘if all the kids jumped off the bridge, would you do it too?’. I don’t know if you say it in Australia, but every parent says that to their kids.
It’s amazing that adults still say things like that. ‘Well, everybody does it’. And when everybody does it you get moral fading. That the moral principles begin to fade. And then of course there is rationalising, so you start giving excuses: yes, but the morale of the men is good because we are not making them do all these extra training things, and they think I am a great leader because I am doing it.
And it is good leadership, some of them even wrote in the interviews that they thought this was good leadership, because they cutting through the bureaucracy to get what they needed done.
Equivocation, they started calling it different things. They started calling it being pragmatic, they started calling it equivocating. Some of the regulations were kind of ridiculous, for example, if you were in Afghanistan and whenever you engage the enemy, whenever there’s any shooting, after that is done the senior officer has to put together a story board. A story board has to have pictures and be laid out, like a very elaborate power point kind of thing. Now you can imagine being in a gritty place, you have just fought a battle, and that is what you have to do.
So what they started doing, is they would have templates of the story board and they would just repeat the same story. Of course, the end result is disastrous because nobody knows what is going on. You not only get moral fading, but you get slippage.
And then the last part is careerism, so instead of confronting people and saying, ‘this is an unreasonable thing for us to have to do, in the middle of battle is to have to, you know at the end of it stop and do these things when you are tired and stressed’ and everything else. But they don’t do that out of careerism, which is another thing we find, that people often keep their mouths shut and they go through the motions and they get the job done because they want to keep their job. They want to move up the ranks, et cetera.
We have talked about this earlier, but a really great political philosopher named Albert Hirschman wrote that the options that you have in these circumstances are: exit, you can leave the organisation if you don’t like the way things are done; voice, and we will talk about voice in a minute; and loyalty, here’s your dog. The idea is you don’t like what is going on, you can leave the organisation. Voice is how do you begin to address it. So if the rules are unreasonable, the regulations that you work under are unreasonable, how do you begin to address it?
The interesting thing about ethics is to be ethical some times you have to exercise leadership. You have to know how to do it, it doesn’t mean you always come out on your big white horse and be martyr, it doesn’t mean that you always, you know, leak to the press. It means how do you take leadership in saying this is wrong and we can make it better. And, of course, loyalty is that you just keep your mouth shut and go along with things.
All right, a few last things. Now a lot of you, as people in the public service, are involved in emergency situations. We have heard about some of them, and I wanted to bring this up because the notion of care is also part of leadership. And you have heard the expression, ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’. Well, the interesting thing about Nero is that people really disliked him and didn’t trust him. And actually when Rome was on fire he did all the things that, probably, you would do if Sydney were on fire: set up stations, brought in firemen, he even put a price freeze on grain so that there was no price gouging. He did all the things a public administrator did, but as one historian, Tacitus, says, in spite of all this, a rumour started spreading about Rome that Nero, during the fire, got up on a stage, he liked to play the zither, not the fiddle, he liked to play the zither. Got up on the stage and wrote a song about the fire and sang it.
Now this is the most preposterous story, and historians wrote about it again and again, and every time they write it the story gets worse. But it becomes an expression, by the way, it moves down through history to William Shakespeare, shows up in two of Shakespeare’s plays, who says, like Nero, and Shakespeare is the one who says playing a fiddle, which is the wrong instrument. But it is a really telling one because we expect our people in public service to be there when we need them during emergencies. And this is a great example of a historical case where people didn’t trust Nero, didn’t think he cared about them, so we get this kind of weird story, which who knows if it is true. And it shows up again and again. I know in America there was an interesting example of this after Hurricane Katrina. During Hurricane Katrina, George Bush was at a fundraiser in California with a country and western star playing a guitar. So what shows up in the newspaper, if you can see it, he is down in the corner, here is President Bush playing the guitar while Rome burns, basically.
The idea that to show care leaders have to be attentive, that it is the attentiveness that people look at, and with senior leaders it is very often, when a disaster occurs, you can’t be on vacation, you can’t be playing a guitar with somebody over some place when you know something really bad is going to happen. And it’s a kind of sensitivity that people everywhere have always expected care from their leaders.
Last story before I close. You all have probably heard of Ferdinand Magellan, one of the greatest explorers in history. Magellan of course had this great idea — he thought the Rio River went all the way across South America and it was a nice short cut to the other side. You can imagine the scene when he got up the Rio River and discovered it wasn’t going all the way across South America. And then he did the most extraordinary thing — he took his ships and they went all the way around the Tierra del Fuego and all the way up to the Philippines. He got to the Philippines and he decided, I have a new job, my new job is to convert everybody to Christianity, so he starts converting people to Christianity.
Now here he is, he is a great navigator, he has fought in battles, he is a soldier and now he starts converting people. And then he decides, you know, I am not converting people fast enough, I need to do something else. He says what I am going to do is I am going to stage a battle. And in the battle, you know how the Philippines is a bunch of islands, we are going to take a converted chief’s enemy and we are going to fight that enemy to show that Christianity is superior to their religion. So no one wanted to go on the battle, Magellan’s men all thought he was kind of nuts doing this, so he went with a rag tag group of people. You have to imagine them in their conquistador outfits, those completely inappropriate outfits for the tropics, and they get in these small boats. So the plan is very simple, they go up in small boats, the enemy is on the shore and the plan is that the big ship will come up behind everybody and blast everybody with the cannonballs. And Christianity will win, yay Christianity.
Day of the battle comes, get in their little boats, they get close to shore. Magellan looks around, no ship. The greatest navigator of his time forgot to ask about the tides. His ship was stranded beyond the reef, he was cut down knee deep in water, the end of Magellan.
It is very interesting that we often talk about people doing bad things, but sometimes people think that because they are doing something good, that they don’t have to think about everything else. So sometimes people behave unethically because they think they are good. It’s like in a soup kitchen, you know you are serving the homeless people, but you don’t think you need to wear the plastic gloves and the hairnet because you are doing something good. I mean, you are not like a commercial occupation.
And there’s lots of examples of this, and this can happen in small groups, it can happen in universities, it can happen, certainly in public service: we’re the good guys, we are helping people, therefore, we are an exception to the rules. So there are lots of ways people in leadership roles can think of themselves as exceptions to the rules.
So, remembering where you came from, we are back to where we started. Ptah-Hotep said, you know, if you become big after being little, you know, don’t forget your neighbour, don’t forget you were just like your neighbour.
And so I leave you with these four questions: Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it the right way? Am I doing it for the right reason? And am I using what I have learned on the way up? And that really addresses the broader question of authenticity in leadership.
Anyway, I want to thank you for your attention, and I would be happy to take some questions.
Thank you Joanne for a fascinating presentation, a great range of material covered and I am going to ask you a few questions, and then I’ll open it up to everyone else.
So I guess, I mean, you mentioned Machiavelli, and I wondered if you were going to mention Machiavelli along the way, because I think what Machiavelli would say would be yes, ethics is good, but actually what counts is the outcome. So you know, in order to get power as a prince you have got to do some bad stuff. You are not going to get to be the Prince or the Premier or the Prime Minister without doing some branch stacking, or whatever it might be in the Australian context, and then when you get there you want to stay there because you are the one who, you know, you are then going to do stuff. That is what matters.
I mean what is your response to that? That kind of, what we would call the realist argument, the Machiavelli argument.
Again, I read Machiavelli also in terms of what he wrote and the discourse of his own living, which is another thing he wrote. And I think the thing that Machiavelli is doing, which is absolutely right, is he is describing a kind of situation that leaders frequently find themselves in, and that is the ‘sturdy hands’ problem, that they find themselves in it. I don’t think he is happy about what they have to do, but he is descriptive about it and if you read his other things, he is bothered by it.
And in the dirty hands argument, which is a philosophic argument which comes out of Machiavelli, one author, Michael Walter, argues that the thing that is really important is leaders have to, they have to feel their hands are filthy, because that is what is supposed to keep them in check so they don’t start being expedient all the time. So the role of feeling dirty is really important for leadership.
Okay, then there is another question here which is around the relationship of ethics and effectiveness and that is, you can have a very ethical leader, as you said yourself, who doesn’t actually get much done.
But you can also have an unethical leader who is effective and you can have bad luck along the way, or good luck. You can be, fortune can favour you or not, so what is, you know, are these, is good leadership necessarily both ethical and effective? I mean do these things have to go together? How does it fit together?
The problem with the leader who is very effective but not ethical is that it is hard to sustain. You can do it for a while but it eventually blows up on you. And I mean, that’s where people become very arrogant and lose a sense of themselves, you know, especially you see it a lot in business. You know, it’s working for me, we’re making lots of money, but eventually it goes away. Because if you don’t have people who support, if you don’t have people who believe in you, or if have people working for you — in the military case what is so interesting is that the junior people, the young people are seeing officers doing this, they don’t like it, it’s upsetting to them, and yet at the same time the other message is, you know, here’s how you do it, so when I get to be in that position that’s how I’ll do it.
I think that it eventually starts to fall away and you can only do it for a short time.
Okay. The other question would be the impact of time. So what appears to be an effective or right decision at one point in time may, with more information or further passage of time be seen rather differently. So a case in Australia might be the irrigation of the Murray. So we opened up the Murray to irrigation, sold to settler farmers and all that sort of stuff, and then we realised actually we are killing the river, we are turning it to salt et cetera, et cetera. So you know, how do you deal with that, the imperfect knowledge and the impact of time?
Well I mean, it’s a kind of systems problem. Many environmental issues, it’s a systems problem, in that sometimes people are unable to think through all the variables that are interconnected to see how it would work out. On the other hand I think what is most interesting about ethics is that ethics is always risky because you don’t always know how things are going to turn out.
So you don’t know, if you dress a particular problem, or if you tell your boss that you think they are unethical, we talked about that, you don’t know how it will turn out. We imagine how it would turn out, so people would imagine, ‘oh I can’t do that because I would get fired’, and often they are pleasantly surprised that no, they don’t get fired. So sometimes our imaginations are our worst enemy, because we think, ‘oh it’s going to all be bad’ or we think, ‘I’ll fix this problem now’ but we don’t look down the line. And I think that is just an element of human nature that we are not particularly good at thinking systemically.
And there is an added problem here I suppose too, in that you are never going to have perfect information, are you? You are never going to have all the facts. I mean, if you want until you have all the facts, it is going to be too late. You won’t have acted when you needed to.
And the philosopher Kant is kind of interesting on this point, because what Kant says, is of those three questions, he says, you always have to the right moral reason for doing something because you don’t know how it is going to turn out, so what is that going to do for you? Well, it could be a disaster, but you have done it for the right moral reasons, you have the moral rationale for why, for example, for the good of the public, which is what we have been talking about. And that may not help you, you still may get it wrong, it may still blow up in your face if you are unlucky, but there is a level of forgivability for someone who does that, that is not there for the leader who is reckless or feckless.
On the other hand you have reckless leaders and everything turns out fine. We used to call Ronald Reagan the Teflon President because he used to do some fairly reckless things, but they kind of worked out for him.
He kind of seized the day; a ‘seize the moment’ approach to leadership.
Right. And then we kind of look at it historically we kind of go, ‘oh my god I can’t believe he did that, aren’t we lucky that didn’t blow up in our face’.
And what about, I mean, you know, an ethical leader, well let’s take Martin Luther King. As you say, when you talk about ethical leaders you get Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, they often come up, those three. Martin Luther King, very inspiring figure, and of course had a strong faith, which motivated his actions, but he also cheated on his wife, right? Badly, I mean, on Coretta, so does it matter if there is a gap between your public morals, your public ethics and your private behaviour?
I think that is one of the most difficult questions today and I think it does matter. You know, the first presentation we had today, the idea that ‘some people made me a saint’, she was worried about being a saint. Nobody is a saint, but sometimes people do saintly things. And it sounds like she did. Martin Luther King did saintly things but he is not a saint.
So how do we look at that, well it’s funny you ask me this, I just started a paper on sex and presidency, so it’s probably going to be the only interesting paper I ever write.
Your best-selling paper.
It’ll be my best-selling paper. I mean it is extraordinary how they work, so I was looking at Kennedy and I was looking at Roosevelt and what is interesting …
Well Clinton, yeah.
But Kennedy and Roosevelt are revered, okay. I mean Roosevelt is usually picked as one of the great presidents. And Roosevelt, when you get into him and sex, it is so strange. But what is interesting about it, that we forget is, so we look at them historically, writ large, as to what they did. You know, Roosevelt, you know, the New Deal, World War Two, there’s a whole lot of really great things he did. So he did, we could call them, semi-saintly things. And then you look at his organisation, so Roosevelt — Kennedy is even more appalling, Kennedy is unbelievable. You look at the organisation and can you imagine working for someone like Kennedy who has constantly got all sorts of women running in. Being in the Secret Service and sneaking people in, lying to the wife, doing all sorts of things. So you have all of these people in your organisation complicit in bad behaviour.
Roosevelt did too, I mean Eleanor knew that. Roosevelt is sort of interesting, he sort of kept it in the family. He married his fifth cousin and then the other woman he had an affair with was a distant cousin of his as well. I don’t know what it was with Roosevelt. And then of course there was his wife’s secretary was his other great affair.
But for all the people around them on an organisational level, it is extremely harmful.
They know what is going on, they see it right?
Right, right. And of course Kennedy of course was completely reckless. There was an East German spy that he was having an affair with, there was a Mafioso’s girlfriend he was having an affair with. And then of course various people who turned out to be politically connected, I mean, it was a political disaster waiting to happen.
So I think it does matter and we only want to look at, if you only look at the ends, and this is why I have called my work the ‘Hitler problem’. You can say, well was Hitler a great leader? Well some people might say yes, he was a great leader, he got Germany going after a terrible depression, organised people and did all the things that we recognise as good leadership, but of course the problem with Hitler was, what he actually did, right?
So we can say if we look at certain aspects of leadership, we can say it’s fine, but I think with someone like Martin Luther King, I think within his organisation that probably caused a certain level of stress. You force other people to have bad behaviour when you behave that way.
Because they have to cover up for you?
They have got to cover up, yes, so it, but again he is not a saint, he did a saintly thing.
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