Prescription to become a Hero

rupert_murdoch Could Mr Murdoch have done any different? Perhaps he could have been less pushy. But when you are running a modern successful empire, how can you not push your people? Setting unreasonable expectations from yourself and others is part of the pursuit of growth, which then leads you to getting ahead of all. Well, that is pretty much what most leadership is touted to be about- an aggressive leader who is pushing his people to ‘meet targets, no matter what’, and who delivers the goods for that quarter. While mostly this is healthy, but there are limits to how much you can succeed purely with this form of management, that Managers and Editors of ‘News of the World’ discovered a bit too late.

Ethics was one of those courses in my B-school which was branded as Prosti course, one which you take coz you get grades much easier than maybe an advanced statistics course, and was looked down upon in the cerebral environment of an Ivy League B-school. But the subject of Ethics is one of those that is probably the greatest question that businesses need to grapple with, and which no statistical modeling can probably answer – Should you as a pharmaceutical company fund a research that could save millions of lives in Africa but may not make as much profits? Should you play by the rules of Indian bureaucracy and lose time or bend the rules to move fast? Should you change your search algorithms as an online search website to appease the authoritarian governments to ensure your survival? Should you invest more in green technology to reduce your pollution levels while reducing your bottom line profit for your shareholders?

These are tough decisions, but are still the obvious ones since you can frame these simply into a question before you decide. However, some decisions could precipitate into full blown ethical crisis by building on a long term incremental descent into the ‘heart of darkness’, without anyone meaning it to be so to begin with.

Imagine a scenario where you are that false authoritarian boss, you ask your subordinates to do what it takes but to get the job done, or else there is humiliation for him/her. Your subordinate goes back to this task, realizes the impossibility of the task, looks around to see all his colleagues bending the rules just a little to deliver their numbers, and even get appreciation for it. Since many Bosses don’t have the patience (and they will sometimes even claim impatience to be a virtue) to understand any spectacular success, they attribute it all to some heroic quality of this poor frightened guy (and blame the failure on the person character too). All is going well, till the day it turns out that he is tapping into a dead girls phones, and every one is aghast on how could this happen? Who is to blame? How could the boss not know?

If you are that sort of insecure authoritarian boss for whom people are just means or ‘Resources’, the prescription is simple but not very intuitive – since you cant probably change yourself beyond a point, Just stop being an asshole. This is the prescription by Marshal Goldsmith in his book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’, one of the many pearls of wisdom in it.

But as a subordinate what should you do when pushed into doing things that may not be right? Right now I am thinking of the poor guards, part of the Nazi party, appointed as the prison guards at the concentration camps. They were employees, and were doing as told. Is it justified to purse them for crimes against humanity? But they had no choice? They had bosses who were ‘assholes’, (i.e. as defined by Mr Marshal), how can they be blamed? As a subordinate, these questions are tougher to handle.

ethics There was a famous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, in which a bunch of normal people were told by a figure of authority to administer increasingly high voltage of electric shock to test subjects if they answered incorrectly to a set of questions. The test subjects did not actually get the electric shock, but the person administrating it thought that they did. In 60-70% of the cases the subject receiving the shock would have died if this was for real! This test was devised as a defense in the trial proceedings of some Nazi soldiers to argue that the subordinates were just following orders – and I am not surprised that it didn’t carry much weight in the court. The point being, all of us are susceptible to do things that are unethical, given the right (I mean wrong) conditions.

As a subordinate, you could be in the same position, and gradualness of the moral slide could land you eventually into the pits of immoral behavior while you probably mean no harm. How can you stop this from happening to you? It really does boils down to the argument of Means Vs the ends, which can lead to quite a lot of beers being guzzled but with no real conclusions at the end of it. But I think such discussions need to probably happen minus all the beer. Mr Murdoch is at a juncture where all the achievements threaten to get re-written, and all the goodwill earned is being cut to shreds, and all his life’s work could well stand discredited, and I am sure he has no doubt in his mind what is more important, Both are.

One key protection for you at all times to avoid the moral peril would be to ask yourself this questions before starting a new venture – are the means ethical, AND, are the ends ethical? The ownership of both the means and the ends lie on you, and not your boss. This could well have protected the Journalists and the editors of the publication if they had at any point looked beyond focusing on just the ends (improving their business results), while ignoring the ethics of the means (invasion of privacy by tapping into the phones etc).

But once you decide to clean up and re-orient your moral compass and apply it to tasks in front of you, you will then be faced with an even tougher challenge. How to follow through with the ethical behavior if it risks your personal wellbeing – professionally, financially, physically? This is the ground zero from where Heroes come from.

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