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.
I think that this goes back to what you say almost everyday in class: our guardrails. I have a few people in my life, two in particular, that I think of as my guardrails. One, Katharine, has been my best friend since middle school. I actually find myself in situations thinking to myself, “could I tell Katharine about this later?” I know I’ve handled something badly when I’m afraid to tell her what happened.
But she is also available for me when I’m talking through decisions so that I don’t make the wrong decision. She usually doesn’t even have to respond to me – when I’m talking through something that I know isn’t right or doesn’t make sense, her silence on the other end just tells me what I need to hear. That I need to rethink things through. She is the person who helps to prevent ethical blowouts when I am not thinking clearly. And I know I do the same for her. She has come to me before with issues and started the conversation with, “I’ve been dreading this call because I know you are going to tell me I’m wrong.”
We were all put here to help one another through our lives, and I don’t think any of us are capable of handing it all alone which is why I think it is so important for us to have people like that in our lives. That love and care for us so much that they aren’t afraid to say what we need to hear, no matter how much we don’t want to hear it. Just knowing that I have her behind me makes me want to do the right thing even more so that I don’t have to face her silence.
I definitely agree with what Micah said about our guardrails. Just like her, I also have several guardrails in my life that keep me on track. I found it interesting that BP blatantly ignored its friend who was only trying to help them. I know listening to criticism can be hard, but I think the real issue is learning to be humble and accept the criticism. We must be humble enough to accept that we are wrong to reevaluate, taking a step down from our pride stool, and make a change. I hope that the leadership in the companies and firms we will be working for our humble people. If BP executives would have listened to their guardrails they could have made changes that would have prevented the oil spill.
I thought that this topic was very interesting. Both of my parents work for HP and it was definitely a shock for both of my parents when the Mark Hurd scandal came out. I had some very interesting conversations with my parents about what they knew of him prior to the scandal. I just do not understand how someone who came across a person with a stable family life, etc. could end up settling a sexual harassment case. Situations like this make me much more aware of my own personal guardrails. I hope that they continue to grow as my career progresses. If people would have followed their original guardrails when they graduated from college, would there choices have been differently in the working world?
I think you make an interesting point in this blog regarding your wife when you say, “If other are not criticizing me, why should she?” It is often human nature to believe that those closest to us should not criticize us and should only offer kind words. However, the people closest to us see how we act on a day-to-day basis and are thus in the best position to criticize us, as they are the most capable of seeing changes in our values and personalities. It almost seems that you would want your closest family and friends to alert you when they see you are not acting like your usual self. Granted, there are right and wrong ways to approach that situation, but I know even in my limited experience, I have been grateful to those who have helped me through ethically challenging times.
I agree with everyone that it’s hard to listen to those who believe in you give you negative feedback. However, I think it is much easier to take than from those who oppose you. I know when my mom corrects me, it’s out of love. When my “enemies” correct me, I know it’s out of malice. I feel like we are taught from early on to ignore unfriendly comments, so it’s hard for me to want to listen and learn from those comments. I think that while these comments may be more unbiased then those coming from our guardrails, they can also be untrue. So it’s important that we listen to all criticism, but we do need to comb through the comments to find those that truthfully apply to us.
You make a very interesting point. I tend to get defensive when I hear criticism from people who are close to me. I mean, they are supposed to support me, right? This article really made me rethink how to handle criticism. I also like the point you made about listening to your enemies as well. Even if their criticisms are made out of malice, they may be worth listening to.
It’s important to not only work on accepting criticism from close friends, but also to encourage it. It is this feedback that may save us from our own ethical down fall.
I agree with everyone’s thoughts and believe that we must realize we are all susceptible of an ethical blowout. We should keep our eyes open for any sign in which we are starting to veer off our ethical path. Through our development as individuals we will receive all types of praise and criticism from all different directions. As others have said, it may be easy to ignore criticism in which we believe untrue of ourselves. With this, it is necessary that we are able to decipher the constructive criticism and not always take it personally. Although it may be likely positive criticism will come from people who have our best interest at hand and want us to improve, sometimes criticism from our enemies can have some truth buried within.
Great post Dr. Shaub. This is a topic that I have never thought about until taking your class. Now I find myself thinking often of ways to live my life in order to not fall into these “ethical traps”. I used to also be frustrated if a family member or somebody close to me criticized something I had done. I would get upset because I thought they were supposed to support me and love me no matter what. I realize now that they criticized me because they loved me. I understand now that they were just trying to keep me accountable for my actions. I now listen intently whenever they offer advice to try and figure out ways to do things differently.
It is scary that people that seem so unlikely to commit an ethical mistake. I think we have to always be true to ourselves and always listen to criticism from our close friends and our family. I agree with you that it is imperative to also listen to criticisms to those who oppose us or to those who have different views. This will allow us to understand our weaknesses at the full potential and might even cause us to catch something we may have missed. I cannot believe the BP example you used where the friend told BP their might be a problem, and they just flat out ignored it. When it comes to criticism, I live by a phrase that my mom always told me, if everyone else can see something that you cannot, then there is a good chance that you are wrong.
I also feel that the more and more powerful and famous and successful we get, the more likely we are to think we are on top of the world and we don’t need to listen to criticism. I think this could be the case for a lot of the famous people we have heard. I just think as we get older and move up the ladder, listening to those who love us and those who are against our views will help us remain grounded and hopefully be helpful in preventing an ethical blowout.
It seems that all too often, we witness people who we thought were unflappable collapse in one fell swoop. I think that with a closer look, however, we will find that this is not necessarily the case. Nobody is perfect. Everyone, over the course of time, will make mistakes. Often times, those with strong reputations don’t have people hovering over them looking to exploit every little questionable act. We want these strong figures in our society. They give us something to model ourselves after. But even these people make mistakes. During the presentation, “Taking the Harder Right”, Oliver Halle noted the importance of having a code and being able to return to that code after making a mistake. He realizes that no one is perfect, it is the ability to return to your code and avoid compounding mistakes that will help keep you away from the edge and prevent an “ethical blowout”.
When you hear a person criticizing your actions, it is tempting to dismiss their opinion on the grounds that they just don’t understand the situation like you do. While this may be true, it does not mean that their opinion is not valid. It is important to consider all the viewpoints that you can when faced with a difficult decision. You can often find great advice when you aren’t even looking for it. I agree that everybody should have people that they can utilize as “guardrails.” These people have your best interest in mind, and they are willing to give you the tough advice that you may not want to hear. People should be careful not to limit their counsel to these few selected guardrails. People that want to see you fail can be effective guard rails as well.
One of the hardest things is admitting when we make mistakes. We don’t want others to know that we have messed up and part of that is admitting to ourselves that we have failed. Being honest with ourselves is crucial, but we often can’t do that without the help of others to assist us in maintaining the righteous path. I think those who may seem to always do the right thing often get caught making a big mistake because of a simple breakdown. They may convince themselves that they would never get caught, or that it is a onetime occurrence, but whatever the rationalization it doesn’t change the fact that they have made a poor decision. However, we all make mistakes. Whether big or small, I think the most important thing is how you handle the mistake. Holding ourselves accountable for the decisions we make shows a tremendous amount of integrity. I do believe the decisions we make help define who we become, but I also believe the way we handle difficult situations truly brings out our character.
I think the best way to prevent an ethical blowout is to use preventive measures. Having a code to live by can significantly help in times of uncertainty. If you have laid out the guidelines of how you want to live your life, it is a lot harder to stray away from them. Surround yourself with people that can hold you accountable. There’s a lot more pressure to do the right thing when you know that people are counting on you to do it. Try to manage your resources in a responsible way, so you don’t find yourself in a desperate situation. These are all good ways to try and prevent a turn down the wrong path.
It’s amazing how seemingly innocent moments can dramatically change a person’s life. The example I look at is the downfall of former IBM executive Robert Moffat. His life changed the day he met Danielle Chiesi and decided that he wanted the information she could provide. What I love about his story though is that after being arrested by the FBI his family stood by him, supported him, and helped him as he chose to accept responsibility for his actions. While it is important to have guardrails in your life, I also want someone who will be there to help pull me from the wreckage should I ever sail past the lighthouse and land on the rocky shores.
Stories like Mark Hurd’s should be humbling examples of what can happen no matter what level of success you reach. As you said, at some point success causes people to feel invulnerable. I believe the key to avoiding this is to surround yourself with people who are willing to call you out. Whether that is your spouse or a group of trusted friends. You don’t need “yes men” in your life. “Yes men” offer very little value to situations, and they are often the first to turn their back on you when things go wrong. The trick is to trust that those people have your best interest in mind and have the discipline to listen to them even when they aren’t saying what you want to hear.
I think you make a great point here Dr. Shaub. Nobody likes hearing what others perceive as a weakness about themselves. However, if it is a loved one or a close friend making the point, we usually listen and take their comments under consideration. Almost nobody listens to a person we believe has no right to be criticizing us. The challenge is to actually listen to them because they might provide a new prospective we haven’t heard before. I think we always need to be looking at ways we can better ourselves a humans. Sometimes we just here these things from an unlikely source.
I think to prevent a huge ethical blowout you definitely need to have a good ethical code to follow. If you know what is right in your heart, it will be so much easier to work through those tough ethical decisions that may be thrown at you. I also feel those who make poor choices in ethical situations are far disconnected from themselves, others, and reality. Everyone should be open to criticism because that advice could be helpful to you in making that final decision.
I think the issue arises when an extremely successful person gets too used to life always going their way. In our society, people view money and success as power. People who are viewed as successful in their career begin to feel like the rules don’t apply to them, and they are invulnerable to the things that the average person is not. I believe it’s when a person’s ego takes control that poor decisions are made. You better believe it, when these men do slip up, our society is ready to pounce on them. I believe many people look at top executives and think, “Man, they must have all the answers.” It’s when they slip up that people are able to bring their image of the person down to a normal level. I will say, I can see how it may be difficult to swallow your pride once you obtain such a high status. Who does the man who everyone seeks advice from turn to when he needs a little of his own? Never the less, it is the people who are placed in the best of life that must remember to stay grounded the most.
I agree with your stance on these “ethical blowouts”, especially when you mentioned the perceived invulnerability that continual success causes. This goes directly back to the five fallacies of thinking that we briefly talked about in class. I think leaders get themselves into very dangerous situations when they fall for these fallacies specifically invulnerability, omniscience and omnipotence.
Additionally, I believe strongly in the importance of having a close friend or relative who can act as a “guard rail” or accountability partner in your life. Having someone you trust and are open with can help individuals from having one of the blowouts you talked about above. Without having someone there to watch our back throughout our successes, it is increasingly difficult to keep a level head and remain ethical.
It is hard to receive criticism, especially when it comes from someone who we know and trust. We have a tendency to fall into complacency and when it is pointed out by anyone, this vulnerability makes us feel like we are being attacked. I think that another important trait we should strive for in order to prevent ethical blowouts is transparency. When we are open and honest with ourselves and those around us, we create a safe environment that fosters constructive criticism and sincere communication. By doing so, we prevent ourselves from being deceived by recurring success. Additionally, this transparency can serve as a reminder of our ethical roots.