The Week in Ethics: Change and the Power of Thinking Differently

In 2011, complex issues like social justice, income inequity, unemployment, and corruption were taken to streets around the world in violent and nonviolent marches, riots, and acts of rebellion … leaders and institutions were denounced. The issues weren’t resolved by the stroke of midnight in what has been called the year of the Protester.

What has 2012 inherited? Grave societal problems which continue to fester; the failure of business as usual to address them; and, the need to re-earn trust in order to make systemic changes.

In the United States, it is possible Occupy Wall Street has already made its greatest contribution. The movement tapped into, and gave voice to, the anger, frustration, and distrust felt by untold numbers of Americans impacted by the economic meltdown, who aren’t sure how they will regain their footing and are afraid nothing has really changed to prevent it happening again.

It is also possible Occupy will evolve to become an effective catalyst for change. It could learn a lot from the legacy of the Freedom Riders.

Occupy protesters, in voicing their dissent about the status quo, exposed the discomfort government and institutions have with dissent, the First Amendment notwithstanding. Local government leaders’ response to encampments was about hygiene and public safety (which cost millions of dollars) rather than willingness or ability to engage in nonpartisan forums about the public policy issues marking the protests.

The contrast between what Occupy calls the 99 percent and the 1 percent is particularly dramatized by CEO compensation, a disparity that has been an issue for years. In one study of CEOs, they earn 343 times more than a typical worker.

In 2012, the SEC will require the disclosure of the ratio of CEOs’ total compensation to the median total compensation for all other company employees. The question remains whether the inevitable embarrassment will be the driver to lead CEOs to say “enough” or for directors to modify compensation awards.

The concept of two distinct societies is reminiscent of the disparities Michael Harrington pointed out in The Other America: Poverty in the United States which was a catalyst for the antipoverty legislation in the 1960s. The issue now becomes:

  • What kind of meaningful social and economic change is possible for this decade?
  • What will be the combination/collaboration of leaders driving change?
  • What will enable leaders to convene the authentic conversation that shifts the business-as-usual gridlock to what needs to be done differently to create change?

We are where we are now because no matter how bad it gets, we adhere, lock step, to business as usual. Two examples from California (where January 5, 2012, after months of talking openly about projected state budget shortfalls, the Governor announced the 2011-2012 budget faces a $9.2 billion problem):

  • At the University of California (UC) campuses tuition has been raised twice this academic year by nearly 18 percent. Nonetheless, last month UC Regents voted to increase the salaries of a dozen administrators (already in the $200,000 range) 6 to 23 percent.
  • In the California State University system (CSU), trustees dismissed protests from students and CA Governor Jerry Brown when they voted both to raise tuition 12 percent this academic year, as well as pay the new president of CSU San Diego $100,000 more than his predecessor, raising his salary to $400,000, the highest in the CSU system.

These kinds of decisions, like Wall Street companies — who received federal bail out money — paying out huge bonuses, all have rationalizations that create the contracts or systems or expectations that lock us into a business-as-usual mentality that only works when everyone is enjoying unprecedented prosperity. It is a strategy that reacts to a piece of the challenge – the well-intentioned desire to attract and retain talented people – while missing, to its peril, the bigger picture of economic reality that calls for different solutions.

There are ways to upend business as usual. Fresno County (CA) School Superintendent Larry Powell knowing budget cuts threatened to decimate county school programs, retired from his $235,000 a year job with 3 years remaining on his contract in an arrangement  that put the more than $800,000 of salary and benefits he would have been paid back into the county’s school districts’ budget.

He was rehired the next day to run the 35 school districts at a salary of $31,020 with no benefits, which he will give to charity. He and his wife determined their financial needs were met with their pensions. He was committed to protecting an anti-bullying program, arts programs and needed teaching positions if more layoffs occurred.

The power of one individual to think differently to create significant change.

Recently, I saw again the commercial Apple did in 1997 when it re-branded itself. It reminds us that in change, paradigms shift, risks are taken, and leaders lead.

Gael O’Brien    January 6, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics MagazineHer latest column is “Freedom Riders’ Legacy: Creating a Culture of Common Purpose”


One thought on “The Week in Ethics: Change and the Power of Thinking Differently

  1. Pingback: The Week in Ethics: Benefit Corporations, A Path Away from Crises « Gael O’Brien The Week in Ethics: Columns on Ethics, Leadership and Life

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