The push and pull of power

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Author: G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In the mid-1990s, executives at pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb were counting on big results from Capoten, a hot new drug for lowering blood pressure, when unwelcome news crossed their desks.

Studies of pregnant women were beginning to suggest Capoten could cause serious problems in the fetus. Top company executives mulled their options carefully: Should the drug be pulled? Should a warning label immediately be applied?

“People asked the question . . . Is this really something we have to do? Is it really necessary?’” says Thomas Costa ’80J.D., in-house counsel for Bristol-Myers Squibb. Warning labels did soon appear on Capoten bottles, but the episode nevertheless became a cautionary tale that Costa now tells to show how easy it can be for leaders to have an ethical lapse.

“The core issue [for most leaders] is not someone stealing $1,000 from the treasury,” Costa says. It’s usually more subtle, yet with equally high stakes, he says, as confident executives often unknowingly drift into making the wrong decisions.

As headlines of recent years have made painfully clear, smart people are far from immune to devastating ethical missteps. Bill Clinton, for instance, romanced an intern and almost lost his presidency. Former Boston Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law resigned in disgrace in 2002 from one of the Church’s most prestigious posts because he’d been unwilling to remove a known pedophile from ministry. Acclaimed CEOs Martha Stewart, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom have all faced prison sentences for putting a deceptively bright façade over problem situations.

Religion is apparently no moral panacea, either. Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay led regular Bible studies even as he allegedly defrauded investors and employees. And although former Adelphia Communications CEO John Rigas won praise for his Catholic stance barring porn from his cable empire, such kudos evaporated when a jury in 2005 sentenced him to 15 years for covering up billions in loans to family members.

Extreme as these cases may be, the figures involved seemed to see themselves as most people do, that is, as morally upstanding citizens. Yet for anyone on a pedestal of authority, such a self-concept can easily produce a destabilizing pride. Pride can make one’s own moral failings hard to see and in turn bring disaster within arm’s reach, according to Father Oliver F. Williams, CSC, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business.

“In a sense, we can almost persuade ourselves of something that isn’t the case,” says Williams ’61, ’69M.A. “Self-deception is such a powerful instinct, particularly with bright people, that one has to find regular practices to help clear that.”

Not all experts in ethics and leadership use the same terms to describe what happens inside talented people to cloud their moral compasses. While some invoke notions of original sin and grace, for instance, others speak of power as a compelling idol or, in non-theological terms, as a potent intoxicant. Some emphasize the insidious influence of a power-obsessed culture; others detect a perennial human struggle that rears its head in every age.

The seductiveness of power

No matter the terms they use, the experts stress the need for leaders to be disciplined. Leaders should cultivate awareness of their true motives, experts advise, and enlist blunt input from at least one trusted confidant. But first, whether a person leads a small household or a 1,000-person company, he or she needs to understand why successful people are especially vulnerable to ethical lapses.

In childhood, everyone contends with “moral viruses,” such as thinking that “might makes right” or “my needs are most important,” says Doug Lennick, a leadership consultant and co-author of Moral Intelligence. This thinking ideally gets reformed over time, he says, through the influence of caring adults. But in his view, those impulses don’t disappear altogether. Instead they lie dormant or neutralized until circumstances—such as the attainment of authority and power—permit them to resurface.

“Power is seductive,” Lennick says. “Two, power is even intoxicating. And three, power can be addictive. And so when people are in positions of power, it allows for them to act out, if you will, and to act on some of those moral viruses they might be carrying with them. It allows them to justify in their own minds some of the things they do, which you and I might agree are moral missteps.”

Lennick says it’s easy to start believing, perhaps on a subconscious level, that “I’m better than most people, and my position proves that. If I wasn’t better than most people, I wouldn’t have this position.” Yet such ideas can subtly foster a presumption of entitlement that sees no infraction, for instance, with traveling in style on business trips or assigning contracts to family members who could use a break. And if colleagues are taking these sorts of liberties with no consequences, wouldn’t your refusal to take them make you something of a chump, instead of the accomplished person that you are?

Sometimes professionals are just trying to make their numbers when lapses happen. Managers and investors looking for certain level of revenue at quarter’s end may find it tempting to count deals as finished when they aren’t, says Paul Stich ’84MBA, chief executive officer of Counterpane Internet Security, a privately held firm with 100 employees in Mountain View, California.

“When people are having their business evaluated in 12-week cycles, that’s a very difficult position to be in,” says Stich. “There are always lots of temptations that come along. . . . You can’t tell that first white lie because it’s that first one that leads to the second, third and fourth.”

What’s more, for a leader to regard a company or department as “mine” can enhance success by taking pride in results, but only to a point, says Sydney Finkelstein, a strategy professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Management and author of_ Why Smart Executives Fail_. Those who see an enterprise as a reflection of themselves can be tempted to cover up its warts, a move that can spell disaster.

“They are completely unable to allow the truth of some degree of failure, or at least not meeting expectations, to come out,” Finkelstein says. “An aggressive organization that has grown dramatically, that has been successful in the past, begins to fall apart. The possibility of letting that information out—acknowledging to the world that you’re not quite as successful as you made out to be and as everyone thinks you are—becomes unacceptable. And that’s when some of the numbers are being fudged.”

In these dynamics, Finkelstein smells irony.

“Some of the same habits and behaviors that helped bring these people to success and to the top, if left unchanged, very often lead to their downfall.”

A common belief

Struggles with the moral pitfalls of leadership are hardly unique to the early 21st century. In the Old Testament, Israel’s King Saul gets so consumed with jealousy and distrust that he becomes powerless to execute his original good intentions. His successor, King David, enjoys the Lord’s blessings in abundance, yet even he slips and orders Uriah the Hittite killed in order to take the man’s wife. In the New Testament, Judas forfeits his privileged place among Jesus’ 12 apostles in exchange for a sack of coins. Yet although the human condition may be timeless, experts regard today’s dominant cultural forces as less than helpful for those leaders who wish to rise above temptation.

In today’s society, our common belief is that leaders will always do what’s best for themselves because they are, after all, human, notes Michael Maxwell, director of the Center for Ethics in Business and the Professions at Marian College in Indianapolis.

Leaders who wish to conduct themselves ethically need to rethink this motive of self-interest and be prepared to suffer personally for a greater good than their own immediate well-being. Doing so taps into ancient wisdom, Maxwell says, about finding great joy in pursuing noble goals and letting pleasure unfold over time as a mere by-product. For a taste from this countercultural font, he suggests drinking deeply from the Catholic tradition.

Writing in the late 4th and early 5th century, Saint Augustine held that even though human beings regularly pursue their own short-term gain to the detriment of others, doing so is in fact "unnatural"—contrary to humanity’s original purpose. True human nature, once restored by grace, Augustine argued, is magnanimous and oriented to care deeply about such genuine goods as love of neighbor and justice.

If Augustine and all his theological descendants were right about this, then today’s leaders are not doomed by nature to keep fudging ethical boundaries. But just where does a busy leader turn for a helping of Augustine’s requisite grace at a moment’s notice? That’s where the regular disciplines of self-awareness and spiritual counsel become indispensable.

People who do well in life, Lennick says, generally receive lots of guidance as youngsters for behavior commendable and reprehensible alike. But once they’ve attained substantial authority in adulthood, he says, colleagues seldom offer the candid input which all people—especially those who abide in a fish bowl—require to lead a moral life.

“It’s [a matter of] one being sheltered from the feedback,” Lennick says. Or in the words of Notre Dame management professor Robert Vecchio, those in a leader’s inner circle “are probably paid to be supportive.”

“Natural forces do lead you to be put up on a pedestal as somebody very, very special, so you have to work actively against that,” Finkelstein says. “We often talk about the ‘yes men’ or the ‘yes women’ surrounding a leader, and that will happen unless you make it your business to hire, train, develop people who are unafraid to say what they’re thinking. And you also have to model that behavior. You have to demonstrate to others that you can take a critique that is on the merits.”

For this reason, leadership consultants urge successful people to confide their dilemmas and true motives to at least one other person. Father Williams says he hears frequently from former Master of Business Administration students who now lead organizations or departments and face thorny conflict-of-interest situations. Others might confide in a spouse or friend outside the firm, Williams says. But the key is to have someone with good judgment and sufficient fortitude to tell the truth, even when it hurts.

“A well-informed conscience” evolves as others offer honest input, Williams says. “Humility,” he adds, involves “acknowledging I don’t have the only window on the world.”

All this sounds good, Finkelstein says, but in reality, potentially destructive patterns are rarely examined. He points out that the business section of any given bookstore is crowded with tales of success and accomplishment. “People don’t like to think about failure or talk about failure.” Finkelstein says he wrote his book in part because no one else was looking closely at the growing phenomenon of failed leadership.

“We always say we learn from our mistakes, but how often is it really the case that we do?” Finkelstein asks. “I wanted to test that. My conclusion is that people do not learn from their mistakes very often, not the right lessons.” People don’t like to examine their weaknesses, he notes, and leaders seldom have much time for backward-looking analysis anyway.

About that conscience

For those serious about identifying their own ethical blind spots, experts say nothing is more important than what Williams calls a “well-informed conscience.” And although conscience is a built-in asset, it seems to atrophy at times in successful adults unless they take intentional steps to keep it vital.

A successful career may require the support of a faith community, says Notre Dame business ethicist Robert Audi. In the case of Catholicism, for instance, the Church’s ideals serve to counterbalance prevailing messages in today’s society, which seem to glorify power as an end rather than as a means to promoting the common good.

“Catholic social teaching emphasizes the primacy of people over property, the importance of attention to the poor and stewardship of the environment,” Audi says. “Those are ideals that are strengthened by the Christian tradition and tend to be weakened by secularization. It’s certainly not impossible for secular people to respect those ideals, but they gain strength from the Christian tradition.”

What’s more, in an age of hectic schedules, leaders can pay a hefty price when their time for quiet reflection disappears, says Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. To keep one’s conscience in shape, Willard suggests, leaders should set aside a few minutes for routine, highly introspective journaling. And to make sure the habit does its job, he recommends asking two specific questions: “When have I served the [ultimate] good of my function? And when have I served myself?” These practices, done with sincerity, can yield a greater measure of crucial self-awareness, he says, than any amount of ethical training.

“What is called ‘professional ethics’ is basically rules for how to stay out of trouble,” Willard says. “One must be reflective to know why you do what you do” in order to bring persistent moral blind spots and warped desires into focus. Only then, he says, can they be reformed, with help from a trusted confidant, into passions that lead to genuine joy.

Spotting the trouble spots

For even the most self-effacing of successful people, spotting one’s own ethical trouble spots can be a challenge. That’s because, Finkelstein says, even if a leader genuinely wants honest feedback about personal conduct, he or she seldom gets it from colleagues or friends who fear retribution on some level. In this regard, successful people might forever need to live with a measure of uncertainty about their own ethical conduct, since they often can’t recognize their own infractions and others usually don’t dare to point them out.

Yet a healthy sense of self-doubt might not be a bad trait in a leader, says Rev. Steven Shussett, associate for spiritual formation at the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“When people are sure they know the answer [to a moral dilemma], you can be certain they don’t,” Shussett says. “People respect someone who can say, ‘given the information we have, this is the decision we have made. Should other information come along, we are prepared to think it through differently.’”

Still, accomplished people hoping to use their power as a force for good aren’t likely to celebrate such ambiguity, USC’s Willard says. Those certain about what constitutes right and wrong, he argues, stand a chance to catch themselves going astray.

Sometimes companies establish guidelines designed to clarify ethical behavior. At Bristol-Myers Squibb, Costa says, various departments cooperate to keep sales representatives informed about what’s “in the safe zone” ethically and legally to discuss with physicians. Yet he notes that bright representatives with advanced degrees sometimes get bored with the safe zone and feel tempted to reach sales targets by discussing, for instance, how a drug might be used in a way not yet authorized by the Federal Drug Administration.

“They’re saying, ‘I need to increase sales by 10 percent, but you’re not giving me the tools’” to do it, Costa says. “If you’re the vice president of sales, how far do you sort of look the other way and pretend you don’t know what these sales reps are saying to the doctors?”

From one industry to the next, those who have known the joys of success seem to face a heightened challenge in terms of detecting the errors of their own ways. For the successful more than anyone else perhaps, spotting a speck in another’s eye is certainly easier than seeing a log in one’s own.

But perhaps those who recognize this thorny challenge for what it is might stand the best chance of knowing success in the tricky realm of ethics as well. That is, if they can bear to give up one type of success for another.

“They might lose their role,” Father Williams says, if they refuse to abide by expectations for them to do unethical things. “But I think emotionally strong people, well-put-together people can imagine themselves outside of that role. And so they will take a stand on integrity, and it will trump loyalty, and they’ll say, ‘if I have to leave this role, fine, but I have to live with myself.’”

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    G. Jeffrey MacDonald reports on religion, ethics and philosophical ideas for various national news outlets. He can be reached at jeffrey_macdonald@yahoo.com.

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