Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Defining moments : when managers must choose between right and right

Defining moments : When managers must choose between right and right
By Joseph Badaracco

This author who is a Harvard Professor has done a remarkable job discussing ethics in business world. I have been reading some his latest works and eventually ended up with this book (reverse chronology). To me, this is one of his best books. Pathos is that, he cites quite a number of stories from western mythology but did not present any examples from east missing out on equally evocative and elaborate choices.

When there are two choices which are equally “right” but points in opposite direction, taking a decision is discouragingly tricky and perhaps morally hazardous in certain cases. What I liked about his basic theme is that, ethics when it manifests as action, is anything but straight forward. I concur with him that real world problems seldom lend themselves for such direct shooting. The path is nebulous, methods may be at times questionable and yet we have to soldier on. This ethical dilemma has been debated for countless centuries and the answers don’t seem to converge at all as author quips “what cannot be resolved in theory has to be resolved in practice”.

Prof Badarcco has quoted Machiavelli, Aristotle, Nietzsche and host of other philosophers aptly to get his message across. He takes up 3 cases in the increasing order of complexity - how can a Harvard Prof do something without a case study?. He does not tell the entire story in one go, but pauses, explains a bit more on the nuances and later towards the end of the book, he really tells the final outcome of all the three cases. They are all well thought out.

Defining moments are the ones when you choose between one “right” over “other right paths”. But, he adds ruefully, they are the final and visible part of the complex political, psychological and administrative process. To think otherwise is to mistake an exclamation point for a sentence that precedes it. They are the crucibles of character.

He introduces the concept of “dirty hands” right at the beginning from the French Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s work. ( Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Hands )
In that play Les Mains sales by Jean-Paul Sartre, the veteran communist party leader is harshly accused by a green horn youth that he has compromised on party ideals, values and so on. The leader responds thus:
“How do you cling to purity young man? How afraid are you to soil your hands? All right, stay pure. What good it will do? Purity is an idea for monk or yogi. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your side, wearing kid gloves. Well I have dirty hands. I have plunged them in to filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?”
- That question alone would suffice to think deeply.

Also, he talks about a portion of brain that handles moral issues. He refers to an accident of a railroad worker (Circa: 1848), Phineas Gage. An explosion drove an iron rod in to his left cheek through the base of skull and out on the top of the head. Miraculously, he survived. His mental abilities were intact, but his character did not remain the same. Before accident he was a reputable, hard working family person, but after accident, he became undisciplined and foul mouthed. Apparently, the accident has destroyed the parts of brain that govern morality. For more details, please refer : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage

In Ethics courses in the business schools, it is difficult to find a course without J&J Tylenol case study.Now, the twitter version of the story (Poor packaging of Tyenol proved fatal and as result J&J withdrew it nationwide) For more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Tylenol_murders.

The way he looks at the entire episode is quite different and comments that to withdraw it from the market was a “no-brainier” - after all, customer didn’t want to play roulette just to cure a headache. Author cities other episodes in the same company (like Zomax) and concludes it is more an exception.

His analysis of “sleep test” is very incisive. Lady Macbeth could not sleep at night since she conspired with her husband to kill many political rivals and in that process murdered her own sleep. But then, responsible people lie awake precisely because they have done the right thing. He dramatically concludes if people like Mother Teresa sleep badly and people like Hitler sleep well, then we can place no faith on “sleep test”. He brings in the conditions where “sleep tests” can be counted on. I enjoyed both the views.

Author also cities Ernest Hemingway’s view, “I only know that moral is what you feel good after and immoral is what you feel bad after”. Trouble is that, it is essentially post event. Secondly, I think, if one is adept in self reconciliation, some kind of rationalization can be made almost for any action. The examples that come to my mind are: “this is what I get as a punishment when I try to defend myself” – One of the convict’s last statement before he was executed. He killed two police officers. Another Case: A boy murders his parents and pleads the court to be lenient because he is an orphan now! Very rarely, people are at fault in their own eyes.

In terms of number pages, it is a puny one (126pages), but it is a heavy duty book in the sense, it would force you to examine some of your past decisions, path taken so far, and also what path would you want to take?. In any case, as I reflected I concluded that it is simply NOT possible to govern or manage innocently – unless one gets extraordinarily lucky all through his/her life or be in that position for too small a period.

Oh God, then the loss of innocence is real if the job is well done .

Thanks for reading thus far.