September, 2010 | Bottom Line Ethics

I have often made the observation that in American society, time after time, competence trumps integrity. We value people who have certain abilities or who entertain us in certain ways, and what they do to make us money or make us happy is much more important to us than who they are, or who they hurt in the process. I see it as a fundamental weakness in the moral character of American society, one that provides a ceiling on how far we can really progress ethically.

I see the examples in business again and again. The latest example is Mark Hurd, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and currently the new co-president of Oracle. I would say that the things that he did to get fired at HP were relatively small compared to the accusations against many in positions of power in business. Usually, a single relationship that leads to an accusation of sexual harassment, especially when there is no favoritism shown in areas like promotion and raises, is not enough to get a successful CEO fired. If the reports in The Wall Street Journal are accurate, Hurd’s alleged misrepresentations on travel reimbursements were the cause of the board’s breakdown in trust with their CEO. If this is true, it is to their credit that they took the issue seriously. But many in the business community think that they were fools to fire him.

And, in that light, there is probably no one more likely than Oracle’s Larry Ellison to be a buyer in the market for someone of Mark Hurd’s skills. Ellison has a reputation for taking no prisoners, and he manifested that arched back mentality when HP pushed back at the hiring because of a non-compete clause in Hurd’s contract. Ellison openly threatened breaking off the long-term relationship between Oracle and HP, relatively typical bluster for him. It was all settled by Hurd giving back some of his stock awards, which, of course, does nothing to address the fact that Hurd has extensive inside information about HP.

As much as I care about business ethics, it is hard for me not to see Ellison as the clear winner in the negotiation. In some sense, competent people being employable despite their flaws may simply be the price of the free enterprise system. If the moral disconnect is not so outrageous as to make people angry, and you are really good at what you do, you are probably going to get away with it. If you are punished, it will probably only be in the short-term, and you will quickly have other, even superior, opportunities.

It is no different in the NFL. New York Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards’s alleged drunk driving event this week was met with a tepid response from his team’s organization, from the coach to the general manager to the owner. Coach Rex Ryan indicated that he was tired of these types of events and owner Woody Johnson intoned that Edwards had let himself and the team down. Oh, by the way, he will be playing against Miami Sunday, because the Jets have a better chance of winning if he does. (As an aside, it’s unclear to me as a football fan, based on his performance on the field, why they think that.)

And Edwards is a second chancer also. Cleveland traded him to the Jets not only because he had a tendency to drop passes, but because he was a public relations nightmare, including accusations of assault on a 135-pound man. The Jets are clearly a superior opportunity for him, the chance to play with a team with designs on the Super Bowl. Nothing he has done has prevented him from having this chance, and who could blame him for believing that nothing ever will? About the only thing you can do that will push you off the cliff is lie about what you did—ask Roger Clemens and Martha Stewart. And Mark Hurd is, allegedly, living proof that not even that will always do it.

I can feign moral outrage if you like. But, the truth is, Americans generally like winning more than they like doing the right thing. They like making money more than they like doing the right thing. That’s why I tell the young auditors I train the truth. It’s the world you are operating in, and you had better be prepared for it.

It is also the truth that the fall comes for many, for Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow, for WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Scott Sullivan. And I am glad that I live in a country that gives second chances. But sometimes, in my heart of hearts, I wish I could pick who got them.

Categories: Athletics, Business

I am not big on wasting my space on lunatics. I try not to provide free publicity to those who do nothing with their lives except to seek that publicity. You can be confident there will be no Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton columns coming from me. But I feel the need to speak clearly and succinctly on an issue that deeply bothers me, and that is the threatened Quran burning in Florida. I do not really want to go into details about the pastor, or what he has been accused of elsewhere in his pastoral career. I somewhat fan the flames just by giving this “leader” of a 50 or 100 person church a platform.

But I feel it is very important to speak to my Muslim friends and students, as well as to my Christian friends and students. While this is a “no brainer” issue, it is important to say to my many friends who follow Islam that this is not Christianity, and it has nothing to do with Christianity. It is a price of free speech in this nation, and right now it is a high price. I cannot speak to what fanatics may do as a result, any more than I can speak to the fanatic who would hold this event.

But I can speak to what we can be as a people. What we can do is talk to one another respectfully, listen to each others’ viewpoints because we have a common foe, and think long-term. I almost wrote on the Manhattan mosque controversy, but I thought the discussion had been handled quite well in our local newspaper. I was particularly taken by the wisdom of my colleague, Dr. Anwer Ahmed, who leads a local Muslim community. I was surprised to find that he was opposed to the mosque’s location near Ground Zero.

UPDATE: Shortly following the publication of this column, the pastor in question held a press conference announcing the cancellation of the Quran burning, but then publicly retracted his guarantee that the protest would not occur. Ultimately, the demonstration was canceled.

What I was not surprised by was the wisdom in his reasoning. He felt that some people of his faith were not being dialogical enough, that they were not putting themselves in the place of those who were opposed to the mosque. My argument as an American for the mosque’s location is that it brings together three of our most cherished freedoms in one decision: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. Though I was bothered, as was Dr. Ahmed, by a lack of dialogical reasoning in some Muslims, I was bothered as much by a lack of dialectical reasoning in Americans opposed to it.

By dialectical reasoning I mean the ability to think long-term. In the short-run, the mosque’s location is incredibly painful and causes significant anger in many Americans who were permanently affected by the attack on our nation. But the long-term effects of directing where people worship will reverberate and, in the long run, impact a lot more Christians than it will Muslims. America is a nation built on the idea that we may speak freely, even if those who went before us have made some of what we say sound heinous. If we are not a nation that allows people to worship freely, what are we? What is unique about this place? And what freedoms are we fighting for in the Middle East?

We should think long-term, and, if we are wise, swallow the pain that goes with allowing the freedoms of speech, worship, and assembly that make us who we are. There will be days we regret doing that. In fact, what is about to happen in Florida is one of those. We would like to shut the Quran burning down, and shut it down right now.

Will there be demonstrations all over the world? Of course. Are American troops threatened? I am guessing yes. Will this help recruit fanatics to a cause? Undoubtedly. But, in the end, this “pastor” and his heedless minions are actually just setting themselves on fire. Stand back from the flames, ladies and gentlemen. Somebody could get hurt. Given time, they will burn themselves out into irrelevance. And, when they do, I will be standing, shovel in hand, ready to begin building the bridges back to my friends in Islam about whom I care deeply.

Categories: Religion

I read a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal about who young people turn to for advice. In short, the answer is that they largely turn to their peers, for a number of reasons. Being old, I have the sense that this is a really bad idea. But reading the article opened my eyes to a few things.

In general, I think people are well served by listening to older and more experienced people. Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” Nowadays, it seems that the sense that parents are out of touch extends well into adulthood.

Historically, people have thought wisdom was linked to age. I am not sure the research bears this out, though it is inherent and explicit in most authoritative religious literature. Perhaps the research results vary from the assumptions because it is so difficult to live wisely for a long period of time. Longevity and consistency in relationships is all too rare, and we are regularly greeted by examples of middle- or older-aged moral collapse.

As I have written, wisdom seems to include dialogical and dialectical thinking at a minimum, the ability to consider others’ perspectives and to think long-term. Reading the Wall Street Journal article made me consider that perhaps people of my generation have different strengths and vulnerabilities than those of the generation of students I teach. Each has the potential for great wisdom, and also the opportunity to make crash-and-burn decisions.

I think what I have noticed is that my students, and my children, are far more dialogical than I am. They are incessantly communicating with one another and sharing their perspectives. They are getting input from all over—from best friends, from strangers, from Facebook, from authority figures, from the media. Though, to older people, they sometimes seem to have trouble distinguishing the relative reliability of the sources, they are listening.

That is the weakness of people like me. I become entrenched in my position, and I often fail to listen respectfully the way I should. In closing myself to those sources I consider to be of questionable reliability, I find that I have often failed to listen to unique viewpoints that may help me get closer to truth. More painfully, this can be true of me as a father. I want my children to see me as the expert, and I don’t always enter the conversation listening. Or worse, I wait for the weakness in their arguments to emerge, and I pounce. They rightly cut me off as a source of advice. Even when I am right, I am not to be trusted.

But my young friends have a weakness too, and that comes in the difficulty they have thinking dialectically. There is no way they can be expected to have a long-term perspective, when they have not had a life experience of major failings and mistakes, or of fruitful choices that paid off. Of course they underestimate long-term negative consequences of their decisions. Why wouldn’t they, unless they have experienced those consequences directly in the form of fallout from their parents’ lack of wisdom?

Where is wisdom to be found? I think it is in recognizing our vulnerability to these tendencies, and in engaging each other in conversations respectfully. For my part, I am working on becoming a better listener and not trying to solve problems before I even hear them. If that meets up with young people who really want to develop a long-term perspective, there is potential for real conversation. Even more, it may lead a few steps down the road to wisdom.

They say a father is someone who carries pictures in his wallet where his money used to be. That money is spent in hopes that his children will make wise decisions that lead to a good life. For me, it always seemed that financial investment, and my commitment to my kids, earned me the right to be heard, and listened to.

But I think, instead, it is an investment that must be combined with the kind of character in my own life that allows me to listen, even when it is hard to sit still. If I want to be wise, and to help my children grow in wisdom, I will need to engage them humbly and learn from them as well. And that is what I intend to do.

So, reader, to whom do you turn for wisdom? And why is it that you see that person as wise?

Categories: Society

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