Business, Integrity, and Valor

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The time of my generation has been termed the “age of conformity.” Certainly from today’s perspective, my business school class would appear to be amazingly homogeneous; yet there were vast differences in outlook and experience lying just below the surface. But some of my differences were wildly apparent. For one thing, I was coming from California. For another, I had just completed thirteen months of serving in the Army in Korea. My scant civilian wardrobe, which consisted of wide lapels, padded shoulders, and less than subdued shades, was sure to set me apart, especially given that the 1950s “gray flannel suit” conformity was still dominant—and the group norm was for us to wear business suits to class. But, as it turned out, a large proportion of us had just returned from military service, and that experience had been a great leveler. In addition, Harvard seemed to delight in throwing in a few “wild cards,” including those who were admitted without a college degree, based on their life experience. All of us were expected to learn from one another, and learn we did.

We have been open to the vast changes that have occurred in the past fifty years. Some of my peers pushed hard to get women and minorities into business. These activities require sustained effort over many years, and the culture at many firms remains resistant to such changes to this day. Yet in a smaller, globalized world, openness to diversity has become a required norm. In a sense, the uniformity of background and shared experiences of the 1950s and 1960s made it easier to teach or to lead. These days when I teach ethics in graduate business schools, I have some fun with the students by comparing them with my classmates of 45 years ago at Harvard. I set this up to demonstrate the wide swings in societal behavior that are tolerated from time to time. I exaggerate the differences, describing my class as all male, mostly Anglo-American, wearing gray flannel business suits (even to class), and smoking cigarettes. I then describe their typical class. Often at least a third of it is women; in some cases, more than half. Students are a range of ages and nationalities, including native Chinese, Korean, Indian, Kenyan, Nigerian, Mexican, Brazilian, Argentine, Polish, and Russian, to name a few.

To live contingently and successfully one must develop a moral compass, a sense of integrity. The great business leaders of the future must have abiding integrity if they are to be counted on to make the correct moral decisions even when the way is not clear.

Most of my current students, casually dressed in T-shirts, baseball caps, cutoff jeans, and tennis shoes, cannot imagine coming to class in suits—never mind wearing fedoras en route. Many arrive drinking Starbucks coffee or eating noodles. Even with the wild cards, my Harvard class would have been surprised to see a 42-year-old black mother of two coming back for her MBA; my present students would be horrified at how overwhelmingly white and male my Harvard class was.

The deep diversity of current classrooms provides opportunities for learning about differences and styles. It becomes impossible to stereotype one another and to have the “correct” prototype of a USC or Harvard M.B.A. student. Issues are no longer clear-cut. Beyond that, today students’ experiences are much more broad. For example, few of my compatriots at Harvard had ever been encouraged to bribe someone. These days, every ethics class I teach contains seasoned students from India, China, or Southeast Asia for whom the experience is common. They understand that if they do not participate in local bribery, they will lose their jobs or worse. Simplistic answers are no longer satisfactory. The diversity of the classroom forces us to deal with the depth and reality of the issues.

I believe that ethics is contextual and derived from the faith and values system of a particular culture. Thus what is deemed appropriate in a Judeo-Christian ethical culture may or may not be appropriate in a Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, or animist culture. With less common ground, perhaps business ethics in a global environment requires more explicit guidelines. There is a need to better understand the value systems of our counterparts when we are dealing globally.

Today, students’ experiences are broader than mine were. Few of my classmates had ever been encouraged to bribe someone, for example. These days, every ethics class I teach contains students from India, China, or southeast Asia for whom the experience is common.

Even my own classmates, operating in what appeared to be a simpler world, have had to deal with dramatic changes, unpredictable events, and unforeseen contingencies. Indeed, the essence of what Harvard attempted to teach us was how to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, when all that needs to be known cannot be known. To live contingently and successfully one must develop a moral compass. We are beginning to understand that it is not a Harvard or Stanford MBA that is of critical importance. What is important is to develop over time a sense of integrity. The great business leaders of the future must have abiding integrity if they are to be counted on to make the correct moral decisions even when the way is not clear.

The way will not always be easy. One for whom such was the case is recently deceased Admiral James Stockdale. Jim was imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” for seven years, three of them in solitary confinement. Jim’s back and one of his legs were broken when he first parachuted in, and never reset. He was partially deaf from repeated beatings. He pounded his face with a stool and against a wall so he was unfit to be photographed or filmed. Nonetheless, he became the leader of the prison, sacrificing himself to give hope to others. He emerged physically broken but strengthened in spirit. For his service in prison he was promoted to admiral and awarded the Medal of Honor.

Jim and I discussed his experiences, and it’s clear that Jim knew who he was. He had meaning in his life: a solid inner core of values. His values were based more on the moral philosophy of the Stoics than on a particular religion. His values sustained him through the darkest days when hope was not enough, and all that was left was faith in a grounded knowledge of how he wished to live and to die.

Men and women of character who understand the difference between true wealth and merely getting rich must always listen to the inner voice that discerns that difference and consistently act upon it.

In an essay, “The Principles of Leadership,” Jim wrote:

The only way I know to handle failure is to gain historical perspective, to think about those who have lived successfully with failure in our religious and classical past. A verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes says it well: “I returned and saw that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise nor riches to men of understanding, nor favors to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.” The test of our future leaders’ merit may well not lie in hanging in there when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected but rather in their persistence and continued performance of duty when there is no possibility that the light will ever show up.

Jim’s ideals and practices seem far away from today’s media reports on both business and the military. Yet millions of professionals in American business do experience and practice business in a positive, ethical, and forward-thinking manner. Unfortunately, through scandals, shoddy perfor-mance, and greed on the part of some, corporate America has come in for much negative publicity in recent years. To restore the desired image, men and women of character who understand the difference between true wealth and merely getting rich must listen always to the inner voice that discerns that difference and consistently act upon it.

At least superficially, there has been immense change in my business lifetime—change in dress or expressions of sexuality; access of women and minorities to business opportunity; a shift to smoke-free environments; Web-based class syllabuses; and the ever-present e-mails, cell phones, and Internet. Much of what I think about and read indicates that the rate of change will be even greater for the next generations.

Yet the need for core values, emotional maturity, courage to do the right thing, strong mentors, good leaders, and good followers remains unchanged. Indeed, the greater the pace of change, the greater the need for rocks of stability to anchor those caught up in anxiety and confusion. Ethics, for each of us, is our individualized search for what will give meaning to our lives.

The fundamental question of ethics, then, is “How shall we live?” Business should be seen as building relationships, not doing deals. A business person of integrity focuses on vision, values, and valor.