I love Google Maps, especially the user friendly app that currently graces a prominent place on my iPhone screen. With a few quick taps I can identify my destination (the app already knows my current location) and launch turn-by-turn navigation that once was reserved for dashboard GPS products like Tom Tom, Garmin, and Magellan. A friendly computer generated voice reminds me of approaching turns and re-calibrates my route if I stray off course.
If only leaders had such a useful tool as they navigate the often challenging ethical dilemmas and tough decisions confronting them every day. Since the demise of Enron in 2001, the corporate and political world seems beset by all manner of scandal, fraud, and other malfeasance. Whatever moral compass may have guided past ethical practices seems absent, or at least, less influential. Many of our leaders have sold their souls for the power and prestige of climbing to the top of their chosen field.
What causes a young idealistic business graduate or a seasoned executive to compromise their behavior? Why would successful politicians resort to lying and blame so they can gain an advantage over their perceived ideological opponents? While I suppose a few of these people are predisposed to behave badly (perhaps due to mental defect or environmental factors) the rest seem more like good people making bad choices. What’s behind these decisions?
One factor may be our lack of time to reflect on decisions before we feel the pressure to act. When I am faced with a packed schedule, the stress to get everything done at a high level can easily be usurped by the pressure to simply deliver the goods. It’s easier to compromise my beliefs when there isn’t time to consider the consequences.
Another issue is lack of accountability. I continue to be amazed at how leaders in positions of authority are often unchallenged by their peers or direct reports. This contributes to a sense of invincibility that can easily lead someone to abuse their power and behave unethically. Without a group of advisors or trusted friends to speak the truth, these leaders can simply talk their way out of every situation or conveniently blame others when things go wrong.
Finally, it’s hard to deny that leaders regularly measure success by the size of their paycheck, the square footage of their home, and the brand of car they drive. When accumulating wealth and possessions is a dominant driver for leaders there will always be a temptation to shortcut how you get them or a willingness to cheat to keep them. I just read recently in the WSJ how nine private equity executives will take home more than $1 billion in dividends and compensation for 2012. It’s hard to imagine that having so much money won’t impact how these leaders behave, or already did, to reach this milestone.
Unlike my map app, there is no convenient ethical navigator available for download. Yet, the human soul and spirit remain linked to a Higher Power and can still be guided by it. It is only when we become disconnected from those we serve that leaders seem to lose their way. Perhaps a detour is needed for many of those who currently occupy the positions of power in business and politics. If they thought more carefully about their decisions, encouraged others to hold them more accountable, and learned to embrace the act of generosity with their possessions, it’s possible their behaviors could be transformed. This is one time I’m hoping they won’t simply stay on course. Sorry Google Maps!