The Root Cause of Ethical Failings (and Our Political Dysfunction)

Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.

Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.

It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.

While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.

Enter Professor Kenneth Goodpaster and what he calls the “three symptoms of ethical hazard”:*

1. Fixation: obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.

2. Rationalization: attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:

  • My boss told me to do it.
  • Everybody else is doing it.
  • It’s just this one time.
  • No one will find out.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
  • We really need/deserve this.
  • I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
  • You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
  • “Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
  • “Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….

“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history

3. Detachment: the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.

Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:

  • Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
  • Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.

Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.

We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively:

We must win.
We must be the best.
We must rule.

Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:

1. From fixation to perspective. We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.

2. From rationalization to frankness. Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.

3. From detachment to engagement. This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:

  • What will you do once elected?
  • What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
  • What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?

Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.


* Source: Kenneth Goodpaster, “Ethics or Excellence? Conscience as a Check on the Unbalanced Pursuit of Organizational Goals,”Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2004.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Sustainable Leadership on the 50th Earth Day

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a day on which we honor our planet and recognize the importance of environmental stewardship and our mind-boggling interconnectedness. Since 1970, the world population doubled, from 3.7 billion people to 7.6 billion today. We have made great progress on some fronts, but not nearly enough.

In our triple crown leadership model, there are three mains aims: excellent, ethical, and enduring. We define the latter one, enduring, as “standing the test of time and operating sustainably.” Sustainability can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations) or, quite simply, as “the capacity to endure.”

We view sustainability as having two dimensions—external and internal—the latter of which is often overlooked:

  • External: ensuring appropriate and sustainable levels of resource consumption, while minimizing harm
  • Internal: sustaining people and maintaining the financial health of the organization

Business leaders of course must address cash, profits, and growth as they manage their organization’s financial health. Here, it turns out, there are not just costs associated with environmental stewardship but real opportunities. Businesses operating sustainably have the potential for:

  • Increased sales
  • Cost reduction
  • Risk mitigation
  • Reputation enhancement
  • Operational efficiency
  • Customer loyalty
  • Pricing premiums
  • Innovation benefits
  • Competitive advantage
  • Talent attraction, motivation, and retention

“We see that sustainability drives growth, cuts costs, reduces risk, and helps us serve a multitude of stakeholders.”
Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

Of course, these gains are not automatic. Leaders must figure out viable business models and strategies, leveraging innovation and efficient operations while engaging with partners in the community and their supply chains.

None of this can happen without leading people well. Organizations must have a conscious culture that allows people to sustain excellent and ethical work over time.

Here too, we have much work to do. Take, for example, the problem of burnout:

  • 44% of employees report feeling burned out sometimes (Gallup, 2018)
  • 23% of employees report feeling burned out at work very often or always; 28% of millennials (Gallup, 2018)
  • Nearly all of the 72 senior leaders randomly surveyed reported at least some signs of burnout (Harvard Medical School, 2014)
  • 60% of health care workers felt burned out; 21% always or often (Harris Interactive, 2013)

“Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” –Arianna Huffington, Cofounder, Huffington Post, and CEO, Thrive Global

Wise leadership can help create the conditions for “conscious capitalism,” including:

  • Long-term thinking
  • Better benefits and long-term employment for workers
  • Embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace
  • Consumers valued as key stakeholders and not taken advantage of by deceptive practices
  • Responsible environmental stewardship
  • Reducing inequality (e.g., by addressing executive pay)
  • Uniting communities around common causes and solving problems

See John Mackey and Raj SisodiaConscious Capitalism (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)

There have been big developments on this front in the business world. For example, in Larry Fink’s 2018 Annual Letter to CEOs, he wrote about how companies must have a social purpose and pursue a strategy for achieving long-term growth:

“Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.” -Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock

This was big news coming from the CEO of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest asset managers, with trillions of dollars in assets under management.

In 2019, the Business Roundtable published a statement on the purpose of a corporationColumnist Barry Ritholtz wrote the following in Bloomberg about that dramatic statement: “For 47 years, the Business Roundtable has lobbied on behalf of corporate America. Much of that time, it maintained a fiction—that the sole purpose of a corporation was to maximize profits on behalf of shareholders. This philosophy has been under assault for several years now, and this week the Business Roundtable announced it wants to put it to rest. In a widely circulated memo, the 200-member organization reversed itself, writing that ‘shareholder primacy’ is no longer the sole purpose of a corporation. Instead, corporations must include a commitment to ‘all stakeholders,’ which includes customers, employees, suppliers and local communities.” By now, we should all be including the environment in our list of essential stakeholders, given our dependence on its resources and conditions.

According to management theorist R. Edward Freeman (creator of stakeholder theory), “Managing for stakeholders is not about trade-off thinking. It is about using innovation and entrepreneurship to make all key stakeholders better off and get all of their interests going in the same direction.” John Mackey and Raj Sisodia note that the way to enable such stakeholder synergy (avoiding trade-off thinking) “is to focus on value creation rather than on value division,” taking us back to the innovation imperative.

When it comes to the external aspects of sustainability, we are today seeing great advances in areas such as biomimicrycircular economy business modelscarbon sequestration, regenerative and restorative practices, and more, in part capturing the attention of the world through the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These matters are not only the province of CEOs, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and policymakers. They are our own.

“If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?”
Buckminster Fuller

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we must take careful stock and act appropriately—and urgently. So much is at stake.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Twitter: @gvanourek