Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ethics and the Prince - Situational Ethics Today

In 1513 Niccolo Machiavelli published a book titled The Prince, a work that would become synonymous with a complete lack of moral and ethical behavior in the pursuit of power. In the 496 years that have passed since its first publication, The Prince has been reviled and rejected by many, while it has been studied and embraced by various leaders and scholars for its raw and unvarnished assessment of how leaders (Princes) come to power, and how they retain their position in the world.

One chapter (chapter XVIII) titled "In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word", is of particular interest for those studying leadership in both public and private positions. Machiavelli has the uncanny knack of putting into words behaviors, feelings, and beliefs that exist deep within many who find themselves in leadership positions, and exposing the related costs and benefits in nonjudgmental terms. He applies no value systems other than those related to the desire to obtain and retain power. (Peter Koestenbaum would refer to this dark side of human behavior as the shadow side of the Leadership Diamond).

Here is an example from the beginning of chapter XVIII:
How praiseworthy it is that a prince keeps his word, and governs by candor instead of craft, everyone knows. Yet, the experience of our own time shows that those princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men's minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges. (P. 62, The Prince, Bantam Classic edition, March 1981)

Today's headlines are filled with examples of leaders who, knowingly or unknowingly, still subscribe to Machiavelli's assertion that those who have the "craftiness to turn men's minds" will be the ones who succeed in our society.

Machiavelli goes on to say:
... a wise prince cannot and should not keep his pledge when it is against his interest to do so and when his reasons for making the pledge are no longer operative. If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them. Nor did a prince ever lack legitimate reasons by which to color his bad faith." (P. 62, The Prince, Bantam Classic edition, March 1981)

Today, as in Machiavelli's time, situational ethics often come into play. When I assume that you are not ethical, or will not live up to your promises to me, I am immediately freed from any responsibility to keep my promises to you. Or, when the situation under which a promise was made changes, I am no longer expected to live up to my promise. I am free to behave as necessary under the new circumstances.

How often have we used this reasoning to excuse our decision to abandon a promise, contract, or pledge? This happens in both private industry and government. It happens in both national politics and local city councils. It happens among families and friends. We have seen this in many debates over the financial crisis, pension reform, and employment relationships. We have seen this in international business, foreign relations, and cultural conflicts.

The challenge for leaders is to be conscious of this natural and deeply rooted ability to rationalize away reasons to maintain ethical standards when situations change. Peter Koestenbaum writes that "... ethics contains two important elements. One is the profound value of empathy and the other is the overarching power of principle." (P. 108, The Philosophic Consultant) Maintaining a leader's connection to empathy and principle in a world of changing realities is challenging at best.

Koestenbaum goes on to say that "Being ethical is always a decision."(P. 114, The Philosophic Consultant) It is a choice, an act of free will. Therefore, it is necessary that leaders remain conscious that they have a choice when it comes to how they will demonstrate their ethics to the world.

Machiavelli explains that we can easily sacrifice our ethics to achieve what we see as a necessary end. Koestenbaum challenges us to keep empathy and principle in our minds as we choose what our behavior will be.

For leaders, the constant struggle is that what is easy is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always easy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Leadership and Perception

In order to get the full benefit of this blog entry, you must read and carefully perform the task described in Part One before moving on to Part Two. Following the instructions precisely is essential.  

I also want to note that this actually works best in a facilitated setting.  If you are going to do this with a group, I suggest that you find a facilitator who can help you get the full benefit of this exercise.


If you are game, read on.

Part One

Below you will find a link to a video posted by the Visual Cognition Labs. When you are ready, click on the link and play the video. Here's your assignment:
  • This very short video shows two teams who will be passing basketballs between members of their respective teams. There is a White Tee Shirt team and a Black Tee Shirt team.
  • Your task is to focus on the White Tee Shirt team and count the number of times the basketball is passed between members of the White Tee Shirt team.
  • The number of passes will be difficult to count because at least one of the passes is visually blocked by a member of the White Tee Shirt team, therefore you will have to focus carefully.
  • Play the video only once.
  • Record the number of passes you observe.
  • Here is the link
  • Go.
When you are done, you may scroll down to read Part Two.

Don't Read Ahead... 
Be sure to complete Part One before moving on to Part Two

Don't Read Ahead... 
 Be sure to complete Part One before moving on to Part Two

Part Two

If you have not completed part one. Go back to the first part of this blog entry and follow the instructions.

If you have completed Part One, you are ready to answer the following questions:

  • How many passes did you count? Answers typically range from 12 to 15. Personally, I counted 14.

  • Did you observe anything unusual during the passing of the basketballs?

  • Did you see the gorilla? Yes, there was a gorilla in the video.

  • If you didn't see the gorilla, go back and play the video again. This time you can ignore the number of passes between team members.

Based on a study performed by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris of the Psychology Department at Harvard University, as well as studies conducted by other researchers referenced by Simons and Chabris, somewhere between half and two thirds of participants in this experiment will not see the gorilla on the first pass.

This is a phenomenon referred to "Inattentional Blindness": a failure to perceive objects that are there because our attention is focused elsewhere. Inattentional blindness occurs even when the object of interest is momentarily obscured by something of importance that would have been noticed had the observer been more generally aware.

For example, if you have ever entered a theater and been so focused on finding a seat that you did not notice one of your friends waiving to you from across the room, you experienced inattentional blindness. Your focus on the task of finding a seat obscured your ability to recognize the wave from your friend. Inattentional blindness happens when what we are looking for does not match the objects that we are seeing.

The concept of inattentional blindness does not only apply to interesting visual demonstrations like the clip you just watched. It also applies to systems, ideas, groups, and leaders.

When what we expect to see does not match what we see, we can experience inattentional blindness. When systems are set up to handle certain kinds of processes, problems, or issues, they can be blind to opportunities for improvement. When ideas are proposed that do not match what we are expecting to hear, we ignore them or are not even aware that they were expressed because of inattentional blindness. And, when leaders have a strong focus on what they want to achieve, they may miss opportunities. Their inattentional blindness may make them fail to see the gorilla in their midst.

Leaders can protect themselves from this phenomenon. Here are a few rules to live by:
  • Encourage those around you to offer their observations, ideas, and suggestions even though they may challenge the stated goal, outcomes, or norms. They may be identifying a gorilla that other team members are not seeing.
  • Step away from the action and into the balcony (see the prior blog entry on The View From the Balcony) to make sure you are seeing the whole picture, not just the part that you find most interesting.
  • Be aware that we often see what we expect to see. We can be blind to even big changes that do not match our expected reality.
Perhaps we will cover more on this topic in future blog posts.

Let me know what you thought of this exercise.