In 2002, CEO of Tyco International Dennis Kozlowski delivered a commencement speech at Saint Anselm College. “You will be confronted with questions every day that test your morals . . . for your sake, do the right thing, not the easy thing.” He was indicted for tax evasion 17 days later.
Many leaders embrace the concept and ideal of integrity. Enter the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘integrity’ into Google and there are more than 190 million results. Definitions of integrity are vague, however many maintain that without it, no leader can be truly successful (Hambrick & Mason, 1984). In the Turknett Leadership Character Model, integrity is defined as standing up for what is right, keeping promises and telling the truth (Turknett, 2005).
In Attenborough’s Gandhi, we observe a man whose life’s work is to bring about independence for his beloved India through the embodiment of non-violence, civil disobedience and brotherhood. Gandhi is victorious, and Britain withdraws from India. Gandhi did not however consider himself successful. In the end, he saw his newly independent country torn apart. His purity of purpose, honesty and integrity were not enough to secure a unified India.
Yet, whilst integrity alone does not always lead to a successful outcome (Gentry, et al, 2012), Gandhi demonstrated a leadership style that captured the world’s imagination and heavily influenced future leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Chavez and Ho Chi Minh. Gandhi’s success cannot be measured in India alone. His advocacy of non-violence and right action echoed across time and showed us an alternative to violence, greed, power and war. It’s a lesson current leaders can continue to learn from.
Gentry, W., Cullen, K. & Altman, D. (2012). The Irony of Integrity. A study of the character strengths of leaders. Center for Creative Leadership White Paper. Retrieved 27 March, 2016, from http://insights.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/IronyOfIntegrity.pdf
Hambrick, D. C., & Mason, P. A. (1984). Upper echelons: The organization as a reflection of its top managers. Academy of Management Review, 9, 193–206.
Turknett, R., & Turknett, C. (2005). Decent People Decent Company: How to
Lead with Character at Work and in Life. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black
In the first century BC, the Latin mime and writer Publilius Syrus observed that “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”. In turmoil however, when decisions are critical, many leaders make grave errors in judgment (Kahnemann et al, 1982).
In 2012, Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, wrecked the £370 million vessel on the rocks near the island of Giglio – he claimed he had simply wished to greet a friend on shore. Highly competent, experienced and qualified leaders are often influenced by their hearts, leaving more rational, considered and impartial options submerged in their wake (Von Clausewitz, 2009).
Why and how do good leaders make bad decisions?
In Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the unnamed captain’s decision to give safe harbour, transit and protection to Leggatt, a self-confessed murderer, ultimately jeopardises the future of his crew, ship and career. The captain’s inexperience, self-doubt and isolation lead him to align with, relate and even aspire to Leggatt’s freedom, self-determination and power. Prioritising such a man over the well-being of the crew is potentially perilous in the extreme (Klein, G. 1999).
The neuroscience of decision-making reveals three distinct phenomena concerning the captain’s choices. First, we know that he feels a stranger to the ship, the crew and to himself, and that his role is new to him. Thus, in the absence of contextual experience, he defers to a humanistic approach (Rogers, 1946), which is to help a cold and potentially drowning man.
Second, once he has assisted this man, it is psychologically natural for the captain to continue the “pattern” of help. Third, having attached an emotional “tag” to the successful protection of Leggatt, his rational decision-making ability is considerably impaired, if not entirely muted (Finkelstein et al, 2009).
Research tells us the decisions we make are almost instantaneous and often at an unconscious level (Nisbett and Wilson, 1977). Leaders must be aware that their brains are predisposed to deliver subjective conclusions, and seek to ensure this is counter-balanced through the use of appropriate safeguards, such as consultation, governance and debate. The Secret Sharer serves to highlight the rocky path set forth by unilateral and risky decisions.
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2009) "The illusion of smart decision making: the past is not prologue", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 30 Iss: 6, pp.36 - 43
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2008) Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P. and Tversky, A. (1982) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York. Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 3
Klein, G. (1999) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977) Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84(3):231–59
Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1, 415-422.
Von Clausewitz, C. (2009), On War, LeVergne, TN: Wildside Press, p. 42.