A difference of opinion – expressed with mutual respect – leads to ethical reflection and a renewed commitment to civility.
One of the great pleasures of this year has been the the opportunity to serve more fire departments. An outgrowth of that has been a presentation to fire leaders enrolled in the Hamline University Fire Service Leadership Seminar. This was the second year of my teaching in that program – and I was twice impressed by the caliber of students and of the regular facultyof that program.
The slides are shown below…enjoy!
What happens when courage fails us? We cannot return to a moment of truth, but we can grow based on our experience and prepare for next time.
A sandwich shop encounter leads me to reflect on the fragility of an ethical business culture, with or without onions
With the change of seasons, we begin a year-long inquiry into the nature – and the power – of adulthood.
It takes a certain practical wisdom to play with enthusiasm, laugh early and often, and relax when it is time to relax. It is a virtue, and it is contagious. Great memories are here for us, if we pay attention.
My youngest child, not yet two years old, has discovered Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. “Tree! “Tree!” He begs, pleads, and ultimately demands. I have read it to him four times today. It was a light day.
I hate The Giving Tree. I remember it vaguely from my own childhood, when it was read to me, presumably without incident. More recently, reading it to my own child left me deeply, inconsolably sad. As I thought about it (and given my son’s appetite for repetition, I had plenty of time to think about it), sadness turned to anger.
As you may recall, the illustrated poem tells the story of a relationship between a female tree and “a boy.” In the boy’s youth, the tree was the center of his abundant free time. The tree was delighted to share her leaves, her apples, and her shade, for the boy’s company and the pleasure of his joy. As he grew older, the boy made increasing demands of the tree, who ultimately invited the boy to take everything, leaving the tree with nothing, a stump, utterly alone. The story closes with an elderly “boy” sitting upon the stump, who was again “happy” to be giving to the boy, and to be in the boy’s company.
What a terrible story: one character sacrifices herself utterly while the other exploits. Is Silverstein extolling this relationship as an ideal for love? The debate about this work has gone on since its introduction in 1964. I am cursed to read this story, over and over, to a cheerful toddler…who just takes and takes…
Then I realized: throughout the story, the exploitive character is identified only as “the boy.” He appears in his youth, in adolescence, through early and late adulthood, and ultimately in very old age. He remains “the boy.” This simple convention reveals the source of my angst.
I am struck by a global shortage of adulthood. Our political debates have devolved to childish over-simplification, name-calling, and, all too often, fear mongering. I work with many wonderful (adult) leaders, but I also encounter too many business people – and business students – who try to cover naked selfishness and short-sightedness with a cloak of “market discipline” or “commercial rationality.” They seek short-term gains, at all costs. They don’t believe in building trusting relationships, because they are equipped neither to trust, nor to earn trust. They are boys and girls, engaged in (or pursuing opportunities for) exploitation.
These traits are much cuter in a toddler. Even the tree was equipped to meet the needs of a young child, sustainably. While the “boy’s” body and desires grew, he did not mature. He gained neither foresight, nor any concern for the tree’s well-being. Adults care for those who love them. Good adults care about the well-being of others, more generally. Wise adults have foresight.
With only 620 words (I counted them while trying to desensitize myself to the text), Shel Silverstein taught at least two generations much about life. Not all lessons are easily learned or accepted.
I recently went for a run through Minnehaha Falls Regional Park. The day was gorgeous. While I slowed to enter the “wheezing” portion of my workout, I came up behind a father and son, the latter of college age. While my cardiovascular system caught up with my greater ambitions, I had occasion to eavesdrop on their conversation. It left me wistful.
Dad reflected aloud on the human achievement to be celebrated on July 4. The Declaration of Independence was a triumph, in his view, of reason and rights over superstition and tyranny. He noted that the signing of the Magna Carta was a prior moment (in 1215, for those of you keeping score at home) which had limited monarchy. The events of 1776, he opined, truly created a new government based on a conception of justice.
“Bullshit, dad,” responded the son. “The American Revolution was a tax revolt, driven by economics and pure self interest. The rest was all window dressing.” He went on, in mid-collegiate, upper-percentile fashion, to make his case. Dad responded by invoking Locke and Rousseau, and by drawing limited analogies to the ancient Greek polis.
It reminded me of conversations with my own late father, when I believed that I knew everything. He was patient, if often and theatrically bemused. I miss him.
It also made me think about the ways in which we tend to disagree. There was truth in both of their statements, along with (to borrow a phrase from the son) bullshit. Isn’t that usually the case? We miss a lot of truth because we insist on binary solutions – the Revolution was either noble or it was self-serving. Maybe something as momentous as the founding of a nation and the declared separation of prosperous colonies from a great empire can be complex and nuanced. How could it not be? We crave black and white, at our peril.
This acceptance of complexity is fast becoming a theme in an MBA Ethics class I’m teaching at the Carlson School. In a first round of student essays, many students are expressing the view that ethics is “merely subjective,” and the frustration that I, as the teacher, cannot give them an algorithm for ethical conduct. Still others reject the pursuit of ethics because the domain of business, as they see it, is the domain of self-interest. It is and it ought to be so. The dominant rationale? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” argument: lots of people pursue their own self-interests, but in so doing cooperate to create jobs, wealth, and the iPhone. Voila, the invisible hand of capitalism transforms greed into social goods.
Except, that’s not what Adam Smith said, at all. Smith, at bottom a moral philosopher, understood complexity and ambiguity. His view of human nature included not only self-interest, but also “sympathy,” which we would probably call empathy or a deep regard for the well-being of others. Only in light of that admixture does “the invisible hand” work. Without it, we’re looking at an invisible fist. Or, an invisible finger. For a great account of this (without my imagery), read Patricia Werhane’s Adam Smith and His Legacy for Modern Capitalism.
We are driven by both appetites and concern for others. Among the Founding Parents were both natural rights theorists and aspiring oligarchs. Good ethical decisions take into account outcomes, and rights, and motives, and the impact of character. It is possible for a beer to taste great, and be less filling. It is impossible to capture complex, human truths without accepting complexity.
Happy Birthday, America. May fathers and sons – mothers and daughters, too – argue about your founding for many generations to come. I am especially grateful that they pulled the trigger in midsummer, because such conversations are best had outdoors, even in our northern climes.
Thanks for reading.
I recently gave the keynote at the City of Eden Prairie’s annual appreciation banquet for commissioners and board members. The event honored volunteers who assume community leadership positions requiring time, effort, and energy. As I reflected on their work, I realized that perhaps the greatest commitment they make might be summed up as follows:
They commit to being “We.”
If I am a parks commissioner, “they” didn’t cut the parks’ hours or programs: we did it. If I serve on a board responsible for streets or sanitation, “they” didn’t raise fees. We did. Indeed, leaders in any role within any organization should regard the “mantle of we” as a significant responsibility. As such, it is too often neglected.
I have seen the abandonment of we most starkly in some fire service and police organizations. A line supervisor – a fire captain or patrol sergeant – gives instructions at training or roll call that ring out as, “here’s another thing they are making us do…” Who are they? Who are us? Firefightrs and cops have no monopoly on this bad habit, and perhaps it seems most stark there because of the paramilitary underpinnings of their cultures. Maybe it’s just because they actually have regular meetings specifically to convey information and direction.
Wherever we sit, being “we” is important, but it isn’t always easy. I empathize with line managers struggling with this specific challenge. When I was a direct supervisor, my people groused about “management.” I had to remind them – I’ll admit that my reminder was at times reluctant – that I was management. Serving in those roles also made me realize that, as a manager in an organization, I have a dual responsibility:
- To participate in – and influence – decision making to the extent allowed by my position and circumstances, and
- To accept and implement lawful and moral decisions as a leader of an organization.
If I believe a decision to be unlawful or immoral, I may have additional ethical duties (which will be the topic of future blog posts, to be sure). For the vast majority of decisions and actions, though, I have a duty, to my organization in general, and to my superiors and subordinates in particular, to understand what we are doing and why, and to communicate that direction consistently, constructively, and unequivocally.
That constitutes an excellent reason for recognizing those who assume such responsibilities voluntarily, for the good of their communities.
Thanks to so many for your warm wishes and encouragement! Let’s make this blog a conversation. Comments?
I have too much respect for veterans to liken building a Website to D-Day invasion, but if these weren’t the longest days, they were at least long enough. With that said, I am proud of our initial iteration, www.ethinact.com, dedicated to carrying our perspective on ethical leadership to anyone clicking on through… so thanks for being here.
Thanks also to Jason Sem of J.B. Sem Consulting, without whom this would not be happening. Jason is a strategist, who helped me really think about how we might use the best of the social media available, to help us communicate about ethical leadership and connect with others who share our passions. Jason was also willing to roll up his sleeves with me more than once to bring this site into being, for which I am especially grateful. More important in the long run, though, was his stragic sense for doing the RIGHT things online to help us achieve our objectives.
I’m also grateful to Allison Gahlon for our gorgeous graphics, and to Antonia Lortis for challenging me to sharpen my brand focus, and to put first things, first. Like Jason, Allison and Antonia are a true pros, who committed to helping us establish a new brand in the world.
Let me be clear: any mistakes, glitches, or initial awkwardness that you find on these pages belongs to me. If you find value (or, perhaps flashes of beauty), much of the credit goes to Jason, Allison and Antonia, and to my ELA colleages, the professional staff profiled on these pages.
There’s much more blogging to come, but as this site goes live, I felt it important to give credit where credit is due!