Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics
The truth that makes men free is for the most part
the truth which men prefer not to hear.
Herbert Agar, A Time for Greatness (1942)
Speaking truth to power is perhaps the oldest and, certainly, one of the most difficult of ethical challenges because to do so entails personal danger. From the day humans descended from our ape-like ancestors until only very recently, tribal leaders, clan elders, kings, and just plain bosses were men who ruled by force. To question their decisions was to risk death.
A major theme running through Sophocles’ fourth-century B.C. play Antigone is the perils of speaking truth to power. Indeed, the play is the source of the modern cliché, “shooting the messenger.” Early in the action, straws are drawn among King Creon’s guards to choose the unlucky one who must tell his majesty that his niece, and soon to be daughter-in-law, Antigone, not only has defied a recent edict he has proclaimed, but that the populace is rallying to her support. The losing guard swallows hard, recognizing that “nobody likes the bringer of bad news.” Least of all Creon, who greets the news by first questioning the guard’s loyalty and, then, in a terrifying display of what the Greeks called hubris (the arrogance of power), he proclaims that, because he’s king, the god’s are on his side. Creon refuses to listen to Antigone’s reasons for defying his edict-she is a woman, after all, and that would be too much of a blow to his male ego-and he refuses to hear what his people have to say, believing that to listen to them would be taken as a sign of weakness and, hence, a threat to his power.
Finally, Creon’s son, Haemon, musters the courage to tell his father that “Your presence frightens any common man from saying things you would not care to hear.” Haemon tells the king:
Then do not have one mind, and one alone
that only your opinion can be right.
Whoever thinks that he alone is wise,
his eloquence, his mind, above the rest,
come the unfolding, shows his emptiness.
A man, though wise, should never be ashamed
of learning more, and must unbend his mind.
Have you not seen the trees beside the torrent,
the ones that bend them saving every leaf,
while the resistant perish root and branch?
And so the ship that will not slacken sail,
the sheet drawn tight, unyielding, overturns,
She ends the voyage with her keel on top.
No, yield your wrath, allow a change of stand.
Young as I am, if I may give advice,
I’d say it would be best if men were born
perfect in wisdom, but failing this
(which often fails) it can be no dishonor
to learn from others when they speak good sense.
But Creon stubbornly refuses to listen and, in the end, brings death to his family, ruin on himself, and destruction to his country.
In the play, both the messenger and the king face tough ethical choices: the guard is likely to be killed if he speaks truth to power; and, as the king sees it, he must either execute his son’s fiancé or undermine his authority to govern. Sophocles implies that the latter choice is both the harder and more morally significant. He puts one moral of the story in the mouth of the messenger: “To reject good counsel is a crime,” and another is spoken by a blind “seer”: “Stubbornness and stupidity are twins.” The play thus is a reminder to leaders that their ethical duty is to create what, in a modern organizational context, Warren Bennis calls a “culture of candor.” The ancient Greeks had a word for culture: ethos. Often translated as “character,” significantly, it also is the root of the Modern English word “ethics.”
I first read Antigone in 1973 and, in the decade that followed, was amazed to find that the ethical issues raised by Sophocles in the context of an ancient monarchy were present in many of the modern corporations where I was doing research and consulting. Here are two contrasting examples of what I observed:
In 1982, I was invited by the Cowles Media Corporation (owners of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune) to meet with their top executives to discuss their corporate culture. I could see why they wanted help: After having lost the magazines Look in the 1960s and Harper’s in the 1970s (the first went belly up, the second literally had to be given away), the down-in-the-dumps corporation subsequently had seen their net income fall from $12.2 to $0.7 million between 1979 and 1982. I started the process by asking the group for a few short, descriptive phrases that would best describe the culture of the company. Silence. I asked again. More silence. Finally, I was passed an unsigned note that read “Dummy, can’t you see that we can’t speak our minds? Ask for our input anonymously, in writing.” I did so, and for the next two hours I would ask them a question about their culture, they would write down their answers; then I would collect them and read the responses back to the group. At the end of this wearying experience (one I viewed then, and now, as a failure on my part), several executives came up to tell me in private to say that the meeting was the best they had had since John Cowles, Jr., had assumed leadership of the corporation! Within a year of the meeting, John Cowles fired several of those managers for disloyalty (that is, for having spoken truth to power) and several others resigned in protest over one or another of his decisions. Shortly thereafter, the Cowles family fired John.
The second story is about the then-startup Federal Express Corporation. In the late 1970s, I addressed some thirty of the corporation’s top managers on the subject of worker productivity. I had gotten no more than ten minutes into my talk when a young manager interrupted me and addressed a challenge to his colleagues: “The professor has made an interesting point that runs counter to a major decision top management made a couple weeks ago. I suggest we ought to reexamine that decision now in light of what we have just learned.” To my amazement, the managers picked up the suggestion and turned directly to a no-holds-barred debate of the issue. What was surprising to me about the discussion was that the lower-level managers made those at the top defend their decision. When it became clear the policy couldn’t be defended, the younger managers asked the bosses to change it. Which they did, then and there. This rough and tumble exchange lasted for about an hour. At the end, they all went to lunch without a trace of hard feelings, or a sign that anyone had won or lost face, power, or status. Apparently, this openness and willingness to raise tough questions and challenge accepted wisdom was part of the culture of the firm, for I seemed to be the only one in the room who found the exchange unusual. My feeling then, which I expressed in a book in 1985, was that if Federal Express could retain that rare ability to learn and to change, it was a good bet that they would continue to be a remarkable success.
Quite apart from the ethical issues raised by these two examples, in hindsight one can see why the Cowles organization failed to meet the test of sustainability, and why Federal Express went on to become one of the world’s most successful corporations in terms of anticipating and responding to technological, social, political, economic, and competitive change. The lesson I drew from these examples nearly three decades ago was that managers in companies with healthy cultures were constantly willing to rethink even their most basic assumptions through a process of constructive dissent. And my experience over the last thirty years confirms that companies get into moral and competitive hot water when their leaders are unwilling to test their operating premises about such (often taboo) subjects as (1) the nature of the working conditions they offer employees, (2) the purposes of their corporation, and (3) its responsibilities to various stakeholders. The failure to openly examine such behavior-driving assumptions leads to what commonly is called “group think,” a state of collective denial or self-deception which often has disastrous business and ethical consequences.
I hesitate to cite the late John Z. DeLorean as an authority on ethical matters, but he was one of the few business leaders to recognize the consequences of group-think. In On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors he described what he called a typical meeting of GM’s executive committee in which then-chairman, Richard Gerstenberg, would pontificate and vice-chairman, Richard Terrell (“the master of the paraphrase”), would parrot his views:
Gerstenberg: Goddamnit. We cannot afford any new models next year because of the cost of this federally mandated equipment. There is no goddamn money left for styling changes. That’s the biggest problem we face.
Terrell, after waiting about 10 minutes: Dick, goddamnit. We’ve just got to face up to the fact that our number one problem is the cost of this federally mandated equipment. This stuff costs so much that we don’t have any money left for styling our new cars. That’s our biggest problem.
Gerstenberg: You’re goddamn right, Dick. That’s a good point.
DeLorean clearly was exaggerating, but this hypothetical dialogue is illustrative of a behavioral problem found in many organizations. People in groups form shared ideas-“collective representations” in the language of social anthropology-and all the forces of the group conspire to protect those notions, no matter how inaccurate or outmoded they may be. For example, as the Japanese began to win a share of the U.S. auto market in the late 70s, DeLoren portrayed GM’s top managers in Detroit looking down from their fourteenth-floor executive suite onto the enormous company parking lot below and saying something like, “Look at all those big cars! Who says Americans want small ones?” Ditto GM’s leaders’ self-defeating collective representations about product quality.
If only the pattern were confined to the auto industry. But experience shows that all managers commonly hold shared assumptions about the sources of innovation, motivation, productivity, product quality, and profitability in their organizations, and those untested assumptions drive their behavior, for good or ill. Significantly, the more basic-and therefore the more potent-the assumption the less likely it is to be examined. From what I have been told, the Altria company has squeaky-clean governance procedures, thanks to their tough internal auditing and control processes, but it is doubtful that the company’s managers could raise the question of the basic morality of its cigarette business. Similarly, business professors in large research universities resist examining a fundamental premise of their enterprise that publishing in “A” journals is the sole measure of scholarly excellence. All organizations-nations, colleges, businesses, and families–hold on to such fundamental and unexamined myths. While such shared values and assumptions are necessary to hold a group together, if the glue that binds them is, in fact, toxic, it can result in organizational morbidity. That’s why managers in companies with healthy cultures continually challenge old assumptions, rethink basic premises, question, revise, and unlearn outmoded truths.
An often told story about Motorola during its hey-day in the 1980s concerned a young middle manager who approached then-CEO Robert Galvin: “Bob, I heard that point you made this morning, and I think you are dead wrong. I’m going to prove it. I’m going to shoot you down.” The young man stormed off and Galvin, beaming proudly, turned to a shocked companion and said “That’s how we’ve overcome Texas Instruments’ lead in semi-conductors.” Moreover, at Motorola during that timeframe there were no rewards for those who supported the status quo: managers got ahead only by challenging existing assumptions and by proving the fact when they detected imperial nakedness. Galvin would explain to anyone who would listen that he was far from the smartest person at Motorola, and that the success the company was due to the fact that he had surrounded himself with managers more talented than he was. And then he listened to them. Galvin not only made it clear that candor was valued, it was rewarded even if that entailed receiving information he personally found unpleasant. In fact, Galvin put into place a process by which the fundamental assumptions of the company where surfaced, and then challenged. Unfortunately, over subsequent decades the company would lose those good habits.
But it seems possible to institutionalize what Galvin once did so naturally. When Verne Morland was an executive at NCR in the 1980s he suggested that all companies could benefit from hiring a corporate “fool.” Like Lear’s Fool in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, the modern organizational equivalent would be a person licensed “To challenge by jest and conundrum all that is sacred and all that the savants have proved to be true and immutable.” While this corporate contrarian need not dress in motley, spangles, and bells, the fool nonetheless would be obligated to ‘stir up controversy, respect no authority, and resist pressures to engage in detailed analyses.”
In keeping with William James’s observation that “genius…means little more than the facility of perceiving in an unhabitual way,” consultant Nancy Reeves prophetically suggested in the 1980s that speaking truth to power might be a more natural role for women than for men to play because the former “have been outside the status quo ante, and are free to marshal historic exclusions for positive ends…women have not learned, and therefore do not have to unlearn, principles no longer pertinent…women might be the utterers of today’s imperative blasphemies.” Twenty years later, in the great tradition of Antigone, Enron’s Sherron Watkins, WorldCom’s Cynthia Cooper, and the FBI’s Coleen Rowley, found themselves on the cover of Time magazine as 2002 Persons of the Year. Although Time incorrectly accused these three brave women of whistle blowing, in fact, they had received their due public recognition for their willingness to speak truth to power. Each had courageously gone to the men at the top of their respective organizations with news those leaders didn’t want to hear.
I use the word courageous advisedly. Too many business leaders today are like King Creon. While the dangers posed to modern messengers are no longer physical, thanks to the much-publicized behavior of imperial CEOs in the 1990s, a cultural expectation has been created that leaders need to be decisive, tough, take-charge men who quickly fire those who are not “team-players.” Imagine the courage it would take to tell a Jack Welch, a Scott McNeely, an Andy Grove, or a Larry Ellison news he didn’t want to hear? Even in a book by fawning admirers, Jack Welch came across as a modern-day Attila when GE managers dared to question him. Dissenters were berated, insulted, and abused: “According to former employees, Welch conducts meetings so aggressively that people tremble. He attacks almost physically with his intellect-criticizing, demeaning, ridiculing, humiliating.” One humiliated former GE-executive who had been publicly dressed down by Welch for daring to question his boss admitted to the moderator of an Aspen Institute seminar in the early 1990s that Welch’s furious tirade “caused me to soil my pants.”
Perhaps the only thing riskier than telling the boss he is wrong is to have to admit one’s own mistakes. Speaking truth to power is a threatening exercise when it entails owning-up to serious error. Indeed, fear of punishment by tyrannical leaders causes many managers to become risk averse. To free his people from such crippling fears, legendary CEO Percy Barnevik issued these General Principals of Management Behavior when he became CEO of ABB in the 1980s:
*To take action (and stick out one’s neck) and do the right things is obviously the best.
*To take action and do the wrong things (within reason and a limited number of times) is second best.
*Not to take action (and lose opportunities) is the only non-acceptable behavior.
Paradoxically, the risks of speaking truth to power are particularly acute for those in professional services firms–the very lawyers, accountants, and consultants who are the very “gatekeepers” charged with providing business leaders with unvarnished assessments and warnings, and objective advice and counsel. In a nutshell, these professionals know that the fastest way to lose clients is to tell them news they don’t want to hear. This is especially true when the news that needs to be conveyed is that the client-CEO’s behavior is at the root of the company’s problems. For example, it takes great moral courage for a compensation consultant to tell a CEO that he is over-paid. In a professional services firm the penalty for losing a major client is a fate worse than death: derailment from the partnership track. As the demise of the Arthur Anderson accountancy demonstrated, the incentives in most professional firms encourage people to lie to, and for, clients. And that won’t change unless the ways in which professionals are evaluated and rewarded change.
THE LEGACY OF ENRON
In the wake of Enron and similar instances of corporate fraud and lying uncovered over the last decade, increasing calls have been made in this country for what the British call “transparency”– that is, for business organizations free of the dirty little secrets the unveiling of which would destroy trust, ruin reputations, and wreck havoc with profits. As Warren Bennis notes, transparency cannot be legislated. Instead, it only occurs “when an organization creates a culture of candor, one in which followers are free to speak truth to power and leaders are willing to hear it.” In fact, there really is no need for any secrets in organizations beyond protecting plans for new products and processes and other sources of competitive advantage. As another of my colleagues, Edward Lawler, has shown, it even redounds to the benefit of organizations to post everyone’s salary. So what needs to be done? Transparency comes down to leaders doing several practical things: providing egalitarian access to information, not punishing those who constructively demonstrate imperial nakedness, not rewarding spurious loyalty, and empowering and rewarding principled contrarians. But that is easier said than done, as recent experience at the highest levels of government illustrates.
A HIGHLY VISIBLE LESSON
As an unimpeded flow of information is the sine qua non of a business organization’s ability to meet competitive challenges, the free flow of information is necessary for a modern democracy to flourish. A dozen or so books written by Washington insiders published over the last few years document the costs in terms of careers, reputations, and even lives when America’s political leaders have been unwilling to listen to uncomfortable truths. In State of Denial Bob Woodward cites a recent exchange in the oval office concerning the occupation of Iraq that eerily echoes the 1970s discussion at GM’s headquarters reported by DeLorean. According to Woodward, then-Secretary of State, Colin Powell, tried to explain to President George W. Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice that a major problem in Bagdad was that there were two chains of command, both reporting to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:
The president looked surprised.
“That’s not right,” Rice said. “That’s not right.”
Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right.
“Yes, it is,” Powell insisted.
“Wait a minute,” Bush interrupted, taking Rice’s side. “That doesn’t sound right.”
“Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. “That’s right,” she said.
In The One Percent Doctrine Ron Suskind describes how the President met foreign policy challenges with “self-generated certainty”:
The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principles rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President’s desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his “instinct” or “gut.”
In The Price of Loyalty Suskind further documents how former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil would often meet such Presidential certainty with regard to economic policy. O’Neil would present a detailed policy argument to the President who would respond with a blank stare, saying nothing, and then moving on to the next subject: “I wondered, from the first, if the President didn’t know the questions to ask,” O’Neil recalled, “or did he know and just not want to know the answers?” In this and similar instances documented by other observers, instead of asking questions to gather information, the President kept his own counsel and made up his own mind.
Significantly, such criticisms of the way decisions are made in the Administration are, for the most part, from non-partisan sources. For example, conservative columnist David Brooks offers advice on “how the next president needs to fix decision-making:”
…the next president has to restore cabinet government-set up teams of rival, as Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan did…A president who vests power in cabinet members gives himself colleagues, people of similar age and stature who can argue with him face to face. By formalizing a decision-making process he balances egotistical secretaries against each other. A Rumsfeld would have to go to meetings and explain himself to his rivals. Entire departments couldn’t be shut out of the loop, the way Treasury and State were.
In both the public and private sectors, the very strengths of leaders are often also their weaknesses. Warren Bennis calls attention to the importance of what he calls “the Wallenda Factor,” that supreme self-confidence found among most great leaders, a belief that they not only are right, but that they cannot fail. When the leader is, in fact, right-as Churchill was right in the 1930s about the threat posed by the Nazis and, hence, refused to heed the counsel of the many appeasers in his country-such resolve and determination becomes the stuff of legend. But when a leader is wrong, or when conditions change, the very same trait appears as self-defeating stubbornness (witness Creon). In this regard, Francis Bacon offered leaders sound advice some four hundred years ago, “If a man will begin with certainties, he will end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin in doubts, he will end in certainties.”
Clearly, the problems attendant to speaking truth to power have been around forever, and they are unlikely to magically vanish in the future. Nevertheless, experience shows that several things can be done to ameliorate these problems, and that both leaders and followers have moral obligations with regard to these actions.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF MESSENGERS
When one reports to an emperor, the temptation is to avoid bad news. Worse, there are rewards for flatterers and those who appeal to the vanity of the leader. Here ego is to blame not only on the part of the listener, but on the part of the messenger, as well. Former CIA Director, George Tenet, was basically an honest, competent, and hard-working civil servant in the Clinton Administration whose ego was wounded by the fact that he was never accepted as a White House insider. As the only high-level hold-over in the Bush Administration, Tenet was understandably flattered when the new President’s inner-circle treated him an integral member of their team. It is easy to see how Tenet would not want to jeopardize his status by being the skunk at the party. Doubtless, nothing could cement his standing more than telling the other members of the team what they wanted to hear: Iraq would be a “slam dunk.”
Paul O’Neil, in contrast, made it a habit to speak truth to power and ultimately was fired by the Administration because he was not seen as a “team player.” Indeed, the moral challenge O’Neil faced almost daily during his tenure in Washington was to weigh the balance between two competing goods: the frequently opposed organizational virtues of loyalty and truth telling. The character trait needed to appropriately adjust that balance is integrity. In Stephen Carter’s book on the subject, the distinguished Yale law professor lays out three requisite steps for the exercise of integrity:
(1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong. The first criterion captures the idea of integrity as requiring a degree of moral reflectiveness. The second brings in the ideal of an integral person as steadfast, which includes the sense of keeping commitments. The third reminds us that a person of integrity is unashamed of doing the right.
However, Carter stresses that the exercise of integrity is not as simple as one, two, three. Indeed, integrity by and of itself is an insufficient virtue: after all, Adolf Hitler had oodles of it. Yet, at the same time, all other virtues are insufficient without integrity: for example, President Richard Nixon had vision, intelligence, and courage, but those proved not be enough without the catalyst of integrity. Moreover, integrity does not simply entail telling the truth. Carter calls attention to “the insufficiency of honesty,” reminding us that we also have other, often competing, responsibilities. As every family knows, inappropriate or careless truth telling can be hurtful, and ultimately fatal, to relationships. In sum, before speaking truth to power can be considered virtuous, the act must meet several criteria:
1. It has to be truthful
2. It must do no harm to innocents
3. It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others, or to the organization)
4. It must be the product of moral reflection
5. The messenger must be willing to pay the price
6. It must not be done out of spite or anger.
This list is neither complete nor all-inclusive, and each of the points requires significant elaboration. For example, in the appendix (below) I illustrate some of the ethical complications related to the role of anger. Those complications duly registered, it nonetheless can be said that we all have a moral obligation to speak truth to power when the actions of leaders are harmful to our organization, to people inside and outside the organization, and to the leaders themselves. But as hard as it is for messengers to fulfill such obligations, it is more difficult for leaders to listen to, and heed, the warnings of followers.
RESPONSIBILIITES OF LISTENERS
As the ancient example of Creon reminds us, the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone almost always leads to a loss of hearing. It is almost always ego-and almost always ego of the male persuasion-that makes it futile, even dangerous, to speak truth to power. As Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman advise
…leaders would do well to reflect on their own receptivity to suggestions, alternative points of views, and others’ opinions. One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say seems to be sheer hubris: leaders who believe they are wiser or more expert than those they lead. The literature on executive narcissism tells us that the self-confidence executives need can easily turn into a blind-spot, an unwillingness to turn to others for advice. [CEO] Kevin Sharer of Amgen keeps a cautionary portrait of General George Custer in his office to remind himself of the dangers of overestimating his leadership ability.
That is why I believe the mantle of true greatness should be reserved only for those leaders who possess the “feminine” virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others, and respect for people. In this regard, one could do worse than to keep a portrait of the late President Gerald Ford as a positive reminder of what great leadership entails. Shortly after he died, New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted that the former President “encouraged dissent in his inner circle. He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern for his image.” A day earlier, on same the op-ed page of the Times, Harvard historian Orlando Patterson described attending a meeting at the White House in which Ford listened intently, and with humility, to the points made by a diverse group of experts.
In short, President Ford was totally unlike the testosterone-fueled political and business leaders whose faces typically are found on the front page of news and business magazines. And, I can assure you, Ford’s were not the traits of leadership advocated in most business schools today where take-charge decisiveness is prized over the ability to listen. In short, Americans are getting the kind of leadership our society celebrates. That being the case, we cannot expect a sea change in the behavior of those who should be more open to candor without there first being a change in the context in which leaders operate.
In the private sector, change will not occur until corporations consciously begin to select, train, develop and reward leaders who listen–that is, Gerald Fords in the making. Yet, in an on-going study of top managers in large corporations, my research colleagues and I have found that executives are far-more-often selected for their proven ability to compete with their fellow members in the C-suite than for their demonstrated teamwork. This reward system encourages the hoarding of information, which then leads to testosterone-fed conflict. Changing that system is the responsibility of boards of directors, the people who have the ultimate responsibility for choosing leaders. Truly independent boards also would go a long way toward providing a needed check on executive ego, and a positive source of objective, disinterested truth to power.
It is often useful to bring in outside “organizational anthropologists,” independent observers skilled in identifying potentially toxic behaviors and the hidden values which drive them. In 1973, Warren Bennis and I coined the term “organizational culture” and created a diagnostic tool to identify the unique behavioral characteristics of a company, for example profiling the type of person who tends to get ahead in an organization. One question we asked was, “What is the company joke that no one would dare to tell the boss?” Since it is the values of leaders that drive organizational behavior, any process that helps to surface those honestly will help to establish a climate of candor. By objectively asking, “What do we really cherish and hold dear-quality? technical excellence? power? executive privilege?”-organizations take a useful first step in that process.
Finally, actions that break down the artificial barriers that separate the few at the top of an organization from the many down-the-line serve to encourage an increased flow of information. In this regard, continued executive resistance to such proven practices as employee involvement and other forms of participation in decision making and sharing information is nothing short of remarkable, if not shocking. Indeed, nothing has to be invented to create an effective culture of candor. For example, in the 1980s Kirk Hanson played a major role in calling national attention to the practices of Springfield Re (now SRC Holdings), a company where every employee has access to all financial and managerial information and is taught how to interpret and apply it. The net effect, in the words of the company CFO, “is like having 700 internal auditors out there in every function of the company.”
That is the definition of transparency, of a company with no secrets, one in which every employee is empowered to speak the truth. This “culture of candor” was created by CEO Jack Stack who had to forgo the ego-satisfying pleasure of being “the boss” and adopt the roles of teacher and listener. He had to learn to trust his employees with managerial and financial information typically horded by executives in most companies, as he had to trust them to act responsibly on the basis of that information. In sum, this most un-Creon-like behavior is what the ancient Greeks called “virtuous” leadership.
Practical Applications: “Exit, Voice, or Loyalty”?
The main defenses used against organizational dissidents are 1) to challenge their loyalty, and 2) to dismiss them as angry malcontents. In 2004, the Bush Administration argued that criticisms leveled against it by counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke should be discounted because the ex-White House aide’s judgment was warped by anger. That argument gained some traction with the public: understandably, Americans expect a level of institutional loyalty from public servants and find unseemly those who kiss and tell (especially those “jilted” by their bosses and who, thus, are trying to “even the score”). And it did appear Clarke had become seriously disgruntled when he found himself out of the loop at the White House, and his advice ignored by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. How do we know if Clarke’s undeniable anger was justified, on the one hand, or an adequate reason to discredit the veracity of his critique, on the other?
As the Greeks saw it, the exercise of virtue is not easy, either for those followers who would speak truth to power or those leaders who need to hear the truth. Aristotle says it takes time and effort to build the habits of ethical analysis that lead to subsequent right behavior. In order to break the comforting habits that lock us into self-defeating behavior, the Ancient says we need to embark on a series of exercises to develop our moral muscles. To illustrate what he means, he cites the practical case of a man who must struggle to control his anger. Aristotle starts by acknowledging that everyone gets angry from time to time, so if a person’s face occasionally turns red, that doesn’t signify anything about his character. Nor should we be concerned with inherited traits: it is morally inconsequential if someone’s face is red all the time. But if a person habitually becomes inflamed with anger, and those who know him are constantly on edge waiting for the tell-tale signs of red ears and cheeks indicative of an oncoming eruption, that is a valid indicator of a character flaw.
Aristotle then calls positive attention to the person who is prone to go red-faced with anger but has learned to control it. In general, he concludes it is virtuous to be even-tempered. But he doesn’t stop there. His discussion of the emotion is nuanced: He goes on to say there are times when anger is called for and appropriate. In fact, if one does not become angry over a grave injustice, he says one cannot be considered virtuous. The secret is in knowing when to be angry and then how to direct it usefully. The virtuous person, he says, becomes angry at the right time, over the right issue, and to the right degree. He then cites examples of questions we might ask of ourselves in order to develop the moral muscles need to allow us to do that habitually. Properly understood, his example of anger management is not only practical, it serves to illustrate how we can free ourselves from the prison of whatever particular emotion might prevent us from behaving virtuously.
A look at what today’s social scientists have to say about the behavior of indignant employees in public and private organizations provides a framework for understanding Aristotle’s ancient ethical perspective. In the early 1970s, MIT social scientist Albert O. Hirschman posited that employees who disagree with company policy have only three options: “exit, voice, and loyalty.” That is, they can 1) offer a principled resignation, 2) try to change the policy (speak truth to power), or 3) remain loyal “team players.” Experience shows most people choose option three, the path of least resistance. They swallow whatever moral objections they have to dictates from above, concluding they lack power to change things or, worse, will be punished if they attempt to do so. Indeed, such “loyalty,” is assumed: most executives expect employees will be good soldiers and not question company policy (or, if they do, will go away quietly).
But sometimes employees find the actions of employers so unconscionable they feel they have no choice but to resign and “go public” with their objections. Typically, this is the last resort for those who have voiced disagreement internally and exhausted channels of appeal but feel they were not given a serious hearing. On rare occasions, a respected organizational insider will proffer such a principled resignation but, typically, those who quit over matters of principle are powerless, or those who have been pushed to the extreme of quitting by the disrespect shown to them by superiors. After all, how many employees would resign if they felt they were listened to, and their options respected, even if they didn’t get their way on a matter of principle? In general, people have to be angry as hell before they quit and go public. And, because anger is such an unattractive, unsettling, and even frightening trait, angry people seldom have much influence, and are easily dismissed by those in powers as “out of control.”
But anger can be a socially useful fuel, as the wrathful 2004 Presidential candidacy of Howard Dean illustrates. Dean seemed legitimately angry over the Bush Administration’s decision to invade a country that he believed had no intent to attack America, and presented no real threat to the nation’s security. His anger-fueled campaign served the purpose of mobilizing his party to challenge the Administration’s war policies (those Democrats who weren’t angry enough had acquiesced to the invasion of Iraq). Even though he was a member of the opposition party whose supposed duty is to offer loyal criticism, Dean paid a price: his hostile demeanor was ridiculed by allies and foes alike. And, when Dean ultimately went red-faced wiggy on national television after a primary loss, he obviously blew it by Aristotle’s standards of appropriate anger: he got angry at the wrong place, to the wrong degree, and over the wrong issue.
In contrast to politicians, angry ex-employees risk a lot more than being mocked by late-night talk show hosts: they open themselves to attacks on their personal lives by the considerable force of their threatened institutions. That’s why most workers have to be totally teed off before they violate the norms of organizational loyalty. To get angry enough to face onslaught on one’s character and veracity requires not only fundamental disagreement over policy–typically involving the conviction that a moral principle has been violated–but also deep personal hurt. Such were the mixed motivations in recent high-profile corporate cases of whistle blowing at cigarette-maker Brown and Williamson and at Unum Provident Insurance. In both instances, corporate leaders responded with the standard organizational defense that the whistle blowers’ testimonies should be discounted because they were “disgruntled” (the ex-employees were portrayed as angry “nut cases” with enough skeletons in their closets to outfit a Halloween ball).
Moreover, many institutional leaders argue that employees owe loyalty to them as individuals. In contrast, whistleblowers typically say they owe their first allegiance to their organizations. Indeed, it is when employees believe their leaders betray their organization’s integrity that their anger mounts sufficiently to justify the risks of whistle blowing. Nothing makes formerly loyal employees angrier than values-betraying leaders who claim “L’etat, c’est moi.” In contrast, Aristotle says the organization takes precedence over its leaders.
Hence, to the Administration’s charge that such critics as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and national security advisor Richard Clarke were “too angry” to be trusted, Aristotle would say, of course they were angry: “Those who are not angry at the things they should be angry at are thought to be fools.” Indeed, if they weren’t angry they would still be inside, loyally carrying out orders, or trying to voice disagreement through established processes. They had tried that, failed in their attempts to be heard, and then opted for vocal exits. Doubtless, it would be prettier if whistle blowers weren’t so angry, but anger is often a necessary spur to doing the right thing. Indeed, what might have happened had Secretary of State Colin Powell allowed his reported anger over the decision to invade Iraq to overcome his military-disciplined instinct to loyally fall into line with Administration policies? Had he instead resigned and publicly voiced his concerns, would Americans then have been so accepting of the questionable evidence on W.M.Ds? Who knows? But it does seem clear that if we too quickly ignore the angry words of disgruntled former officials, fewer of them will be willing to step forward, and there will be fewer safeguards of the public interest. Aristotle adds one important admonition: “the good tempered man is not revengeful.”
A PERSONAL EXAMPLE
As I now read Aristotle, I can’t help but recall the most difficult career issue I have personally struggled with: what to do when the leaders of the organization I worked for betrayed its essential values. Because I had firmly believed in those values, my response was over-the-top emotional: I became mad as hell. When I expressed that anger to colleagues and friends, their response was “Cool it. They’re not going to change, so it won’t do you any good to get angry. If you can’t live with the situation, then just quit. But don’t burn bridges by making a stink.” One friend went so far as to tell me that my anger was “unattractive.” Frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to think about the issue, and didn’t know how to behave. But since the only thing more damning that can be said about an employee than he is “angry” is that he is “disloyal,” I bottled up my emotions, quit, and went quietly away.
Years later, the organization was still in a tailspin, and I found myself still angry and not at all certain I had done the right thing. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to analyze the issue with the help of Aristotle’s insights. After rereading what he has to say about anger, I now feel my response had been half right, at best. I still believe I did the right thing by quitting when my bosses put themselves above the values of the organization, but I don’t think I channeled my anger in a useful way: before I quit I should have tried to offer them a constructive suggestion by which they could have gotten back on track. And, once having left, I think I erred in not having had the moral courage to “go public” to call attention to what was happening. Had I reached out to powerful outsiders who also cared about the organization, I might have prevented the leaders from damaging its integrity. For that course to have succeeded, I would have had to be clearly acting for the good of the organization, and not in a “revengeful” sprit.
Aristotle’s insight that virtuous people become angry at the right time, over the right issue, and to the right degree, now allows me to see that, by repressing my legitimate anger, the act of quitting not only had no constructive impact, I also made myself unhappy. Had I asked myself the ethical questions Aristotle raises, I think I might have directed my anger more positively, and gotten rid of it much sooner. Indeed, I even might have effectively spoken truth to power.
1. Warren Bennis, “Building a Culture of Candor,” The Conference Board Annual Report, 2004
2. These two examples from James O’Toole, Vanguard Management, Doubleday, 1985
7. Quoted in Noel Tichy and Stratford Sherman, Control Your Own Destiny or someone Else Will, Doubleday, 1993
8. I was head of seminar programs at the Aspen Institute at the time
9. Quoted in James O’Toole Leadership A to Z. Jossey-Bass, 1999
10. Bennis, op cit
11. Edward E. Lawler ” ” Jossey-Bass,
12. Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, Simon and Schuster, 2006
13. Ron Suskind, The One Percent doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, Simon and Schuster, 2006
14. Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neil, Simon and Schuster, 2004
15. David Brooks, “Building a Team of Rivals,” New York Times, 2006
16. Stephen L. Carter, (integrity), Basic Books, 1996
17. Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman, “Transparency is Inevitable,” 2007, Unpublished ms
18. Frank Rich, op-ed column, N.Y.Times, January 7, 2007
19. James O’Toole, Making America Work, Continuum, 1981
20. Quoted in James O’Toole Leadership A to Z. Jossey-Bass, 1999
21. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies, Free Press, 2004
22. James O’Toole, Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, , Rodale, 2005
23. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Harvard University Press, 1970
October 15, 2015