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.