Well, the Pope is in the news–and not in a good way. Reports say that he counselled patience in handling an abusive priest rather then rushing to metaphorically hang him. I’ve read several of Benedict’s books. He has a marvellous theological mind. But this blog isn’t about theology. I write about that elsewhere. It’s not to condemn or condone his actions. I’m not a saint–or a Catholic. It’s easy to point fingers at someone and say they have failed. It’s harder to look in the mirror and say “I’ve failed.”

What I’m interested in here is the complex relationship of organizations, leadership and ethics. Research shows that the ethical behavior of a person is not abstract good vs. evil. In fact, the level of ethical decisions and actions of each of us is subtly influenced by the situation we’re in or the peer group we’re part of. What I’ve studied and experienced about this I call the insidious nature of organizations.

Have you been in meetings where ethical decisions have been faced? I have–many times. Once early in my career, I wrote a memo detailing a safety problem on a product and suggesting a remedy. Well, you’d have thought I was a felon. The boss came running to my office, “Don’t ever put things like this on paper. If regulators ever came and subpenad the files…” You know, I don’t think we ever fixed the problem. In fact I’ve been involved in numerous situations facing failure to meet laws or regulations. It’s painful to admit, but sometimes I looked the other way at top management decisions. Once, though, I was strong enough to sacrifice my job.

The memory of the memo came back when I read about the Toyota vice president who counselled top management to go public with the accellerator problem (or alleged problem, I think experts are still trying to sort it all out). Top management tried to keep things quiet–probably hoping the problem would go away with a minimum of embarassment to the company.

What I care about is continuous learning about leadership–yours and mine. The important lesson for us to draw from these high profile incidents is to weigh our response daily about the nature of ethical decisions we face within our organizations. Do we let the continuity and reputation of the organization take precedence over acting ethically? Don’t just say yes automatically. It’s not easy. People of greater intellect and responsibility than we have been found wanting.

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