August, 2010 | Bottom Line Ethics

I have been wrestling lately with the issue of sudden ethical collapses in people’s lives, dramatic one-time or short-window events that change the course of their lives and careers. Why do they happen, and what can be done to reduce the probability that they will?

I am not talking about the final revelation of people who have spent a lifetime manipulating people and finally experience what virtually always occurs. I am concerned with those who seem to be cruising along, often on smooth waters with fair winds. And then, suddenly, it happens.

Mark Hurd, HP’s CEO is just the latest example. He recently resigned under pressure from the board of directors after settling a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a contractor for the company. This is not the type of topic I enjoy writing about a lot, because it is hard to be dispassionate about passion, and the genuine benefit of debating the downfall of folks where “close personal relationships” are involved gets swamped by the smirking over the details. But I think there is something for a lot of us to learn from Mark Hurd’s experience.

We are most vulnerable to doing something foolish when we are desperate and when we are very successful. The headlines that go with a desperate fool are short-lived—think convenience store hold-ups. Those that involve a successful person falling tend to have a life of their own, far beyond the importance of the event.

Most people can understand why a person who is desperate might end up in the headlines. They have a harder time explaining why someone who has virtually everything at his disposal would do the same, particularly when the incremental gains in happiness are so small.

I think, in the end, there is a sense of invulnerability that goes with a long string of successes that makes a star subject to imploding. The examples run from King David to Tiger Woods, and infidelity is not the only manifestation. Gradual increases in abuse of those under their authority, increasing isolation, and a smug self-sufficiency have been the recurring themes for the leaders of failed and fraudulent companies that I have studied for the past two decades. At the root of all of this is that the leader stops listening.

And the failure to listen is a critical mistake. I am often tempted to stop listening to my wife, because I am vulnerable to her ability to see underlying weaknesses in my life that others miss. If others are not criticizing me, why should she? Those who love us most and know us best must continually be reassured that we are listening to them and that we trust their perspective.

Perhaps just as important, we must listen to the criticism of those who oppose us, even those who mock us. The clearest presentation of our real weaknesses and long-term vulnerabilities often comes from those who are looking for an advantage or would like to bring us down. Their criticisms are often unhearable. Who wants to know what somebody in Austin thinks about us?

Earlier this week a Halliburton employee, Jesse Gagliano, testified that he had warned BP that if they did not use more risers to control the pressure in the Deepwater Horizon well, it risked a serious gas flow incident. Gagliano apparently recommended 21 risers to control the flow; BP went with six, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps BP did not listen to its friends. And I am sure it is tempting for BP now to just get past this incident and ignore the catcalls of its enemies. But it does so at its peril.

And if I am wise, I will cultivate honesty not just in my wife or my closest friends, but in those who think I am a simpleton. It takes combing through their criticisms for what is legitimate, and listening to things that are hard to hear. But it may just be the key to preventing an ethical blowout in my life.

Categories: Business

They walked down the road from the lake about 100 yards ahead of us, bouncing off one another shoulder-to-shoulder about every three steps, in animated conversation. Nothing new—Katie and Nathan are almost always in conversation. I feel sure they were talking about nothing particularly deep or important at the moment, but they were continuing the step-by-step farewell that occupies our family right now as our daughter prepares to leave for college.

We are parents of five, with births spread across 16 years and four presidents. But for the last eight years, we have been parents of two, the classic one-girl/one-boy family of four. Easily seated in cars and at the dinner table, evenly matched in our ability to tease one another, we have had a delicately balanced ecosystem that has served us well. We have grown together as our last two kids have grown up, and we have a drawer full of common experiences that are not shared by our older kids. We are the Shaubs, Updated Edition.

But all that is about to change, and I find myself wrestling inside with what it means for my life. I have three more years to invest in Nathan, and I am excited about the things still ahead of us. But the sun is setting on our parenting days the way it does at the beach, when you watch that orb disappear like liquid into the water in a matter of seconds. I wonder what comes next.

The little lake house is one thing that comes next, a place to write, to play golf with Nathan, to read, to spend time alone with my wife. It is a place to walk and to bring grandkids, or at least we hope it is. It is a place of the later years. If God grants good success and economic stability, it is a second home; if not, a first.

My investment in students, and my search for wisdom, continues. I have a group of friends with whom I can be honest, and I have the woman I love close by me. I hope for 15 productive years as a professor, perhaps 20.

But Katie is leaving. Leaving. Parents understand what that word means, and it does not mean what it means for the kids: freedom. For parents, a child leaving brings a mixture of pride and loneliness. It leaves a sense of accomplishment and despair simultaneously. There is absolutely nothing else I can do to get her ready for this. And there is absolutely nothing else I need to do.

I have done this three times before, so I thought I would be practiced and poised. In my job I watch parents go through it year after year with bemused detachment. But it is my turn again. And it is my Katie who is walking out the door.

We will regain our equilibrium. The gyroscope is spinning a bit out of control, but we will calibrate again. There will be a new norm, with one side of the dinner table empty. And with my son as a new driver I will sometimes be in the back seat.

In fact, that’s how it feels. It feels like, after all these years of being the Dad in the driver’s seat for all those family trips, I am being relegated to the back seat. You can’t see as clearly back here, and other people seem to be making the decisions about where we are going.

For many years, particularly with Katie and Nathan, we sang at the beginning of each trip out of town, “We’re going on an adventure, and we don’t know where.” Today, for me, we are. But with one seat empty.

It was a seat that held giggles and baby dolls. I will look in the back seat and see Amish romance novels and adventure stories, a cheerleading outfit and a megaphone. I will see an iPod with one ear bud in Katie’s ear and the other in Nathan’s.

And then, I’ll turn around, face forward, look out the windshield and drive on. We raised her to leave that seat empty some day. And when some day comes, driving on is all there is to do.

Categories: Family

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