Ethics and Leadership
Further Reading
  • Decent People, Decent Company: How to Lead With Character at Work and in Life
    Decent People, Decent Company: How to Lead With Character at Work and in Life
    by Robert L. Turknett

    and Carolyn N. Turknett

  • Becoming an Invitational Leader
    Becoming an Invitational Leader
    by William W. Purkey, Betty L. Siegel

Civility and Character

What’s the role of character and civility when we disagree – perhaps strongly disagree – with another? Dr. Betty Siegel, our colleague in this Ethics and Leadership initiative, and Mark DeMoss, sat on a panel together to address this question on October 20th. Mark DeMoss, a conservative Christian Republican, is the founder of The Civility Project with Lanny Davis, a liberal Jewish Democrat. As Mark says, “We don’t agree on much, but we agree on the importance of civility.” Mark believes that he is calledas a Christian to be respectful to those with whom he disagrees. But he also sees civility as the most effective way to get one’s point across to others. “Civility isn’t just important in politics. It’s important in my marriage, in my relationship with my children, and in my relationship with my employees.” He believes that we debate most effectively with words and ideas, not with volume. 

Mr. DeMoss is also concerned about the example we’re setting for our children. “When children don’t get their own way, they throw a temper tantrum. Now we see adults behaving the same way. What lessons will our children learn?”

Dr. Siegel also sees children as the key to increasing civility, but believes that we can’t effectively increase civility in our culture without making character education a part of the curriculum. As a culture we have to find core values that we agree on, and support those values in our schools. The core values of the Civility Project are ones that most of us could likely agree on:

  • Civility in all situations
  • Courage to do what’s right
  • Graciousness in conduct and speech
  • Honesty in all communications
  • Integrity of heart
  • Respect for the right of others to hold and express views different from my own

Someone posed an interesting challenge during the Q&A period after the panelists spoke. He asked about the role of civility - and the effectiveness of civility - when really serious wrongs need to be righted. During the height of the civil rights movement in this country, for instance, didn't the enormity of the wrongs necessitate speaking out forcefully? Martin Luther King advocated nonviolence, but didn't the violent stance of groups like the Black Panthers create a climate that made people listen more willingly to King? Isn't incivility sometimes essential?

After several minutes discussion my husband and business partner, Bob Turknett, made an interesting comment. Perhaps it's not either-or. We believe that adults at the highest level of development are able to reckon with polarities, to hold opposites in tension. Bob reminded the audience of George Washington, who is famous both as the general who led the troops in the Revolutionary War and as the author of Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. An interesting polarity indeed.



Keeping Conscience Front and Center

Keeping Conscience Front and Center

I just read a phrase that’s hard to forget – “subprime leadership.” Bill George, former Medtronic CEO, is a role model for character in leadership, and just published a book entitled Seven Lessons for Leading in a Crisis. Fortune, in reviewing the book on August 31st, 2009, sums the book up by saying that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by subprime mortgages – it was caused by subprime leadership. Leaders silenced voices of dissent and likely silenced twinges of their own conscience. Many leaders in financial institutions surely recognized that the system was unsustainable, and many across the economy knew they were investing in risky instruments they didn’t understand.

Many leaders failed to keep conscience front and center in the past few years. But some did. A colleague, Karl Kuhnert, recently sent a Business Week article by Vivek Wadhwa. Wadhwa had just heard Michael Beer of Harvard, who was discussing his recent book, High Commitment, High Performance. Beer believes the data proves that companies that take ethics seriously, that keep their purpose – and their conscience – front and center, came through the crisis largely unscathed. In the large, failing banks, no one could speak truth to power, and higher purpose took a backseat to short term profit. They lacked a higher purpose, lacked clear strategy, and mismanaged risk. In companies like Charles Schwab and US Bancorp, though, maniacal focus on customer service, honesty and transparency – keeping values in the forefront – kept these companies out of investment strategies that destroyed so many.

Karl Kuhnert’s model of leadership levels, based on Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development, would predict that individuals at levels four and five would not need constant reminders of their values – they, in a sense, are their values – but for the rest of us struggling as adults to move from level three to level four, constant reminders are critical.

A research study from Harvard may help us understand why. In this study, reported in the February, 2008, Harvard Business Review, researchers gave subjects ten math problems, and paid 50 cents for each correct answer. Researchers had found that control groups averaged about four correct answers in the allotted time. In the experimental group, researchers asked subjects to score their own answer sheets and then shredded the sheets without looking at them, and asked the subjects to report the number they got correct. Subjects inflated their scores by about 50% - the average reported correct was six. The most interesting part of the study for me was this – asking people to contemplate their own standards of honesty (by recalling the Ten Commandments or signing an honor code) eliminated cheating completely.

Amazing - and something every leader should remember every day.

See How Character is a Key to Success for more on our views on leadership and character.



Growing in Character

We’re excited by this new venture. It’s been a tough year for all parts of our economy, but there’s no better time for taking stock and building stronger organizations – companies, schools and nonprofits more resistant to ethical lapses, lapses that are not just morally reprehensible but also economically unviable, certainly in the long run. Bob and I are particularly excited to be working on this project with Betty Siegel. She is unique in her ability not just to think broadly and deeply, but also to be able to communicate profound moral and ethical concepts in an accessible and inspiring way. 

I read a short HBR piece this morning by James O’Toole and Warren Bennis on the recent work of Philip Zimbardo, the social psychologist who famously discovered, in his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, that famed experiment on what happens to good people within bad systems. College students were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners. The experiment was designed to last two weeks, but had to be aborted after only six days because the “guards” became abusive. Zimbardo has written a new book, The Lucifer Effect, relating the findings to what happened in such places as Abu Ghraib and My Lai.

 O’Toole and Bennis conclude from Zimbardo’s work that ethical problems don’t “originate with ‘a few bad apples’ but with the ‘barrel makers’ – the leaders who, wittingly or not, create and maintain the systems in which participants are encouraged to do wrong. 

We believe that ethical behavior in organizations is a product not just of the system but also the product of individual moral development, especially the development of leaders. “Invitation to Ethical Leadership” starts with the “barrel-makers,” and our goal is to work with them on two fronts. First, how can every organization create systems within the organization – a “barrel” – that promotes and encourages ethical behavior? See our Code, Character, and Conversation article to see additional thoughts on that front. Second, how do we promote growth in leaders to a higher level of character? This blog will be devoted to thoughts on those two fronts – creating the right “barrel” and growing individually in character. 

We use two models of character development. First, our Leadership Character Model is a model of the kind of character we believe all leaders – and ultimately all organization members – need to lead effectively. Secondly, we believe Robert Kegan’s model of adult development, which Karl Kuhnert has converted to levels of leadership, is the best description of how adults grow in character. 

The Leadership Character Model is depicted as a set of scales, with INTEGRITY as the base, balancing RESPECT on one side and RESPONSIBILITY on the other. Each side of the scale has four qualities. On the Respect side: Empathy, Emotional Mastery, Lack of Blame, and Humility. On the Responsibility side: Accountability, Self Confidence, Courage, and Focus on the Whole. I’ll talk briefly about how to develop one quality on the Respect side of the scale: Emotional Mastery; and one quality on the Responsibility side of the scale: Confidence. 

Heraclitis said, “Character is Destiny,” and that is as true today as it was 3000 years ago when Heraclitus lived. Character affects your personal destiny and your organization’s destiny. We often begin working with executives in their 40s and 50s who say – “I’m cooked” I’m who I am. “I can’t change.”We respond: it may be true that your personality is formed by your early 20s, but as leaders, we need to be working on our character every day of our lives. Our goal is to help all of us do that better.

Lyn Turknett