Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Walking The Ethical Tightrope

Everyone inadvertently has brushes with ethical issues, but it isn’t uncommon to come across people, even friends, who seem to walk that line like a tightrope.  They stand out because they are never, ever going to admit they are wrong and rather than become self-reflective when challenged they get indignant and self-righteous.

Their vehement protests remind me of a quote by Ken Blanchard in the book entitled The Power of Ethical Management that he co-wrote with Norman Vincent Peale and published 24 years ago, a year before I was recruited to Durham:

“There is never a right way to do the wrong thing.”

Dr. Rushworth Kidder, who founded the Institute for Global Ethics in 1990 a few months after I arrived in Durham to jumpstart the community’s destination marketing organization passed away earlier this year.

He was an inspiration as my colleagues and I assembled what became a “best practice” code of ethics to guide the staff and board of that highly accredited community start-up and I often used a quote he penned and eventually used in his book entitled How Good People Make Tough Choices that defined ethics as “obedience to the unenforceable.”

It is too bad so much time is spent covering corporate slime balls, especially some of those in today’s financial sector, where a recent poll revealed that 1 in 4 believe they may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful.

The real news is that there are so many other incredible examples of corporate responsibility.

A leader in corporate responsibility is Tim Mohin (pictured in this blog) who received his Master’s Degree of Environmental Management here in Durham in 1984, the same year that my friend Mike Schoenfeld also graduated from Duke and, coincidentally,  a very forward thinking Durham City Council banned roadside billboards.

Mohin heads CR for AMD as he had done in the past for Intel and Apple and just wrote a book entitled Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Tree-Hugger's Guide to Working in Corporations

Two months ago Mr. Mohin returned to Durham to speak to graduates of Duke’s School of the Environment, and I’m sure he was impressed by the university’s Sustainability Policy, adopted in 2005 which continues to be integrated with the community’s values by Schoenfeld who returned to Durham four years ago to serve as Duke’s a vice president over public affairs and government relations.

Ethics and sustainability go hand-in-hand as Mohin explains in his book because corporate responsibility is “an aggregation of environmental, social, ethics, communications and other disciplines” and measured by the “triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social performance.”

Many today still try to exempt corporations from ethics even as they insist they should have free speech and freedom from transparency.  But corporate thought leaders such as Timothy Mohin may agree more with business consultant Hardin Tibbs who wrote recently in FutureProof that:

“the global industrial economy will collapse within 20 years if we don’t reinvent it to work on different technological principles.”

Or as Dr. Kidder once wrote: “We will not survive the 21st century with the ethic of the 20th Century.”

Even small community organizations such as the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) where I was CEO until retiring several years ago, followed by associations such as the Durham Chamber have committed to triple-bottom-line corporate responsibility signified by achieving Green Plus Certification.

But certifications such as these are far more than a mere accolade or something to check off a to-do list.  They provide an on-going diagnostic through which to filter and evaluate an organization’s past and future policies and activities.

I smiled a week ago when, during a live concert here in Durham, the band Crosby, Stills & Nash kept a classic for last.  Unfortunately, the late Jerry Garcia wasn’t there to repose the incredible steel guitar intro on the 1970 recording but who can forget a part of that first stanza:

“You who are on the road

Must have a code that you can live by

And so become yourself”

All of this may be lost on those who ethically tightrope.  They tend to live on a one-way street where any means justifies the end of checking something off the list.

But the best advice should you ever catch them when they are receptive, maybe even reflective is to offer in friendship one of the several tips in Blanchard’s book:

“A combination of pride and humility (thinking about yourself less and others more) helps you focus on the right priorities.”

They may not immediately come down off the tightrope but hopefully they will see that, when it comes to ethics, we can all trip up on occasion.

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