Tag Archives: Willful Blindness

Ethical Leadership and How it Mitigates Risk

Problems are inevitable. Crises aren’t.

The best way to prevent problems from escalating into a crisis?  Ethical Leadership; it is one of the most effective risk mitigation strategies.

Ethical leadership draws on a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ) and the capacity to own an organization’s values as well as one’s own, linking  the means and the end in business strategy.

On one hand, it involves listening to multiple points of view; on the other, it encourages receiving input and feedback.  Rather than “killing the messenger” bringing bad news, the leader, working with his or her team, sees how problems can be mitigated before they spiral into a crisis.

As I’ve indicated in other columns, it is critical for leaders to raise questions about the potential ethical implications of a decision, the same way they ask about potential legal implications. And in doing so, a fundamental question requiring an answer becomes “what if we are wrong… and the mine does explode, the well does erupt, human error isn’t causing these car crashes, and our customers are harmed by our offering a product that bets against what we just sold them.”

Ethical leadership isn’t a mystical mantra for do-gooders. It is an attitude, a set of beliefs and behaviors that guide how a leader leads. Companies are put at risk, according to an Ethics Resource Center report, when leaders fail to see that ethical leadership is a vital component of effective and responsible management.

I gave a talk yesterday to about 150 civic and community leaders on building trust and reputation and how it relates to practicing ethical leadership. When I said that most everyone believes they are ethical, heads around the room nodded in agreement. But, I added, the problem with that assumption is if we think it is a static assurance that we will continually make ethical decisions. We won’t. Not without the ongoing awareness of what we are doing and actions that match our intentions.

I quoted John Darley, a psychology professor at Princeton, who  said in an interview with Margaret Heffernan for her book Willful Blindness: “In very competitive environments, where you’re under a lot of stress…you won’t necessarily even see there is a moral consideration.”

I’ve written a lot lately in this column and for Business Ethics Magazine about the research done by Heffernan, Kathryn Schulz (on being wrong) and The Arbinger Institute’s work on self deception because these all-too-human challenges greatly undermine a leader’s ability to be effective.

These vulnerabilities are far less likely to derail a leader whose style is ethical leadership — who makes it safe to disagree with him or her; voices company values in making decisions; and has high EQ that is brought into how he or she resolves conflict, communicates transparently  does frequent reality checks with people of multiple points of view, leads in a culture of constructive accountability, and sees ethics as a business strategy where the impact on society is factored into how they do business.

A year ago I contributed to an anthology of strategies on mastering business, life and relationships, called Stepping Stones to Success.  My contribution was stories about leaders demonstrating ethical leadership (and those who haven’t) and recommendations for what leaders can do to minimize the potential for ethical lapses.

I end this column with a statement I made in the book:

“…striving to be an ethical leader is about fully coming into your own as a trustworthy person, connected to your core beliefs and acting out of them. You are in a rhythm that is congruent, not conflicted.

“The term ‘ethical leader’ sets you up for success because it is about deciding how you want to show up in the world and what you need to do to support yourself and gain support from others in achieving goals and making a difference.”

Gael O’Brien,    May 12, 2011

 The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine


The Week in Ethics: The Ethics of Willful Blindness

Corporate meltdowns, says Princeton psychologist John Darley, require thousands of people all failing to see the moral implications of their work. “You become blind…to yourself…to your better self.”

As long as everything is framed as an economic argument, we don’t have to confront the moral and social effects of our decisions, according to Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura.

from Tower.com

Both Darley and Bandura are among the psychologists, executives, whistleblowers and white collar criminals that Margaret Heffernan interviewed for her recently published book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. Heffernan also references a number of psychological and neurological studies, and looks at the types of situations where we don’t see what is in front of us.

The title of her book was inspired by reading the court transcripts of the Enron trial of Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay. She began to think about the legal concept of willful blindness – how you are responsible if you could have or should have known something you chose not to know or see. It occurred to her that willful blindness was a filter through which to look at the economic meltdown, other corporate crises, and ways we are also willfully blind in personal situations – like ignoring health warnings or evidence of a spouse’s affair.

The “paradox of blindness,” she says is that “we think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.”

Themes she raises in the book about how people create willful blindness include:

  • aversion to conflict, so we don’t develop the tools we need to manage it and lack confidence in our ability to do so
  • being blinded by one’s own ideology –  She cites criticism of Alan Greenspan for a “highly simplistic view” of how markets behaved which missed what was going on that was inconsistent with his worldview
  • exhaustion, how the human mind “overloaded and starved for sleep becomes morally blind,” and uses the example of BP workers prior to the Texas City explosion
  • ostrich behavior — that people stay silent in organizations, or leave, because they believe the status quo can’t be changed, and don’t believe saying something would make a difference
  • that CEOs’style of leadership can ensure they don’t learn what is actually going on in their organization even if they say they want to know
  • Structural blindness, like the way BP did business at Texas City and in the Gulf, she says, where employees aren’t seen as human beings; out of sight and out of mind, pointing out that technology can maintain but can’t build relationships

“The moral mind is not a default mind,” says Darley. “In very competitive environments, where you’re under a lot of stress…you won’t necessarily even see there is a moral consideration.” Darley goes on to say, “most corruption, I think, starts with an intuitive act, not a deliberate one.”

So having mounted her examples of failures in ethical behavior and ethical reasoning, how does Heffernan suggest things change?

Her most interesting point is to be a critical thinker, which she says means stop being a people pleaser, doing anything to please your boss.

She talks about the importance of asking questions. She refers to Ratan Tata’s motto “question the unquestionable.”  She suggests simple and direct clarifying questions like “do we mean this?” or “Did I understand correctly?”

I think Heffernan’s point about questions is essential in helping focus intentionally on what is going on at the moment, which makes blindness less possible. A powerful question to raise is “What if we are wrong?”

In addition, a crucial question leaders should always have in their arsenal of blindness busters is to ask whether a proposed action has any ethical liability. As I explained in a Business Ethics Magazine column last June, companies routinely raise questions about whether an action is legal or has any legal liability, so why not ask also about the potential for ethical liability? This question engages us in thinking more clearly about the implications and potential consequences of actions and has the effect of putting ethical conduct on the table as an expected outcome.

Heffernan says that CEOs need Cassandra’s, devils advocates, dissenters, mentors, troublemakers, or coaches to help the leader actually see what he or she may be avoiding.

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know, she says.

Heffernan ends her book with the reminder that willful blindness is willful, which means if we don’t will it, we have the power to change it.

Gael O’Brien   April 4, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine