Breaking the Silence on Complicity

December 7, 2017

On the one hand we’ve seen the recent rise in naming complicit behavior, and on the other hand the rising response that this behavior will no longer be tolerated. Yet many of our leaders remain sitting on the sidelines. Why?

The word “complicit” was recently chosen as the word of the year by Dictionary.com citing the term’s renewed relevance in U.S. culture and politics. They also noted that a refusal to be complicit has also been “a grounding force of 2017.”

Their website defines complicit as “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having complicity.” According to Thesaurus.com, the opposite of complicit is clear, forthright and honest.

Two recent examples include an SNL skit involving Ivanka Trump, and outgoing Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s speech on the Senate floor where he told fellow Republicans regarding the President, “It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”

Complicity was found not only in the political realm, but also in society’s role for contributing to climate change, normalizing of hate speech and supremacist groups, and the tacit enabling of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Time magazine’s person of the year in 2017 is “The Silence Breakers,” referring to those women who have courageously spoken out against perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the global conversation they have started. Edward Felsenthal, Time’s editor in chief, said in an interview on the “Today” show recently that the #MeToo movement represented the “fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades, and it began with individual acts of courage by women and some men too.”

Tarana Burke created the “Me Too” movement many years ago, but it didn’t go viral until actress Alyssa Milano urged those following her on Twitter to use the hashtag #MeToo if they had experiences of sexual harassment.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning that it’s not just a moment, it’s a movement,” Burke said in the same Today episode. “I think now the work really begins. The hashtag is a declaration. But now we’re poised to really stand up and do the work.”

The rise in the usage of the word “complicit” and American women’s courageous response in speaking out after acts of sexual harassment can serve as a catalyst towards positive change. We may one day look back at this time as a pivotal moment when leaders’ abhorrent behavior was no longer tolerated, and when powerful men across entertainment, media, politics and business were finally being held accountable.

So what are our leaders doing? Are they sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what the voters or customers decide? Are they following the advice of their crisis management consultants who tell them to hold off to see if this blows over before “getting ahead of the story.” Are they putting more pressure on their lawyers to ensure that their financial settlements hold up against future accusations?

Great leaders have integrity. They do not commit nor do they tacitly condone illegal acts and inappropriate behavior. And they speak out when they see wrong doing and stand up to their colleagues, coworkers, partners, friends and others to prevent such acts.

When others lie, deceive, cheat, mistreat women, or disparage innocent people, we must hold them accountable. This includes our bosses, colleagues, coworkers, friends and our elected officials not only for the acts themselves, but also for their complicity. And we must hold ourselves accountable as well.

Because that’s what leaders do. And whether we ourselves are leaders, want to become leaders, or just choose to follow other leaders, we must not be complicit in bad behavior.

Personal Integrity in Leadership

August 17, 2017

Now that the President’s manufacturing council has disbanded following a wave of defections, it’s worth exploring how personal integrity fits into leadership. At what point should a leader remove him- or herself from a situation where they feel their moral code is being challenged?

One could argue that with the exception of Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who was the first to resign after President Trump’s tepid response to what transpired in Charlottesville, VA last weekend, those who resigned after him may have calculated the pros and cons of remaining on the council and chose to leave only after it was determined it would not negatively affect their corporate interests.

Many members of the advisory group stood with the president even as he advanced policies they vehemently opposed. One could argue that with both Trump’s ban on immigration from the Middle East (Uber’s Travis Kalanick) and the decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord (Tesla’s Elon Musk and Disney’s Bob Iger) CEOs who resigned from the manufacturing council or strategic and policy forum were taking a stand that was more directly related to their corporate interests than personal conscience.

But at what point should we expect our leaders to stand up for principles above profits? When should they put corporate values above shareholder value?  When should concern for Americans in general be more important than an organization’s products or services?

I believe Mr. Frazier answered this question very well.

“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Mr. Frazier said in a statement on Monday. “As CEO of Merck, and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

It’s unfortunate the President chose to respond to this with a tweet essentially belittling Mr. Fraizer’s integrity by changing the subject and attacking his company over drug pricing.

In a way it’s also unfortunate that it took the only African-American member on the council to resign before others chose to follow suit. How can any leader with integrity passively condone statements that run counter to who they are as individuals? I believe this “personal conscience” should actually help guide the decision-making of those leading our organizations.

Leadership requires a level of personal integrity that employees, customers and shareholders can all rely upon. When leaders take a stand against what conflicts with their personal conscience, they courageously hold true to who they are. This personal choice to hold themselves to consistent moral and ethical standards is vital as they lead large organizations. And it is what separates great leaders from others.

When business leaders see it as morally compromising to take part on a President’s council, it is extremely important that they take a stand because they are in a position to do so. The leadership they demonstrate transcends quarterly financial reports. It is about personal integrity and that defines great leadership.

Now if only our Republican representatives could demonstrate the same kind of leadership.

Corporate Values and Goldman Sachs

March 14, 2012

Corporate values are often what attract and keep many of us at the fine companies we work for. They are above and beyond the paycheck that give our working lives meaning. Corporate values are what attracted Greg Smith to Goldman Sachs 12 years ago.

The values Smith describes at Goldman were “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” Beginning as a summer intern while at Stanford, he ultimately reached the position of head of United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Smith recently left Goldman Sachs and wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times as to why.

“I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity,” writes Smith. “And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”

“Leadership used to be about ideas,” he continues. “Setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”

Goldman leaders immediately responded to this with an open letter to employees on their website. However, other than reporting that 89 percent of employees say the firm provides “exceptional service” to clients and that for the third consecutive year, the firm was the highest paid financial services company, I read no real challenge to the assertions Smith made regarding values and integrity in his opinion piece.

It reminds me of the importance of things that do not necessarily show up on financial quarterly reports and are therefore less likely to be reported in the mainstream press. Corporate values like integrity, teamwork and doing the right thing are what attract and keep the best employees and ultimately what wins and keeps customers.

Earlier in my career, I remember working for start-up software companies where customers were treated as the top priority and employees a close second. When some of these companies filed for an initial public offering, shareholders replaced employees in second place and, in some companies, were even prioritized over customers.

When short term profits take precedence over corporate values, a company is in great trouble. Trust and ethical behavior outweigh financial performance if not in the short term then certainly over the long run.

I have had an increasing number of clients during the past several years complaining about unethical behavior, lack of honesty and bullying by their immediate supervisor. This leads to a stressful work environment and a depreciation of corporate values.

The old adage that people join a company based on its reputation and leave because of a manager is truer than ever. When managers engage in unethical behavior, they damage not only their own careers and those around them, but also the entire company.

Earning and keeping customer trust takes a long time; losing it can happen overnight. Goldman Sachs is 143 years old and surely they won’t sacrifice that trust easily.

I am sure Smith’s assertions have some basis in fact, but with 30,000 employees I’m equally certain there are many contrary opinions.

Regardless, the lesson should be that respecting customers and employees should be paramount in any company. Maintaining corporate values that attract employees and customers should always be more important than higher short terms profits.

Integrity First and Foremost

April 13, 2010

“I look for three things in hiring people. The first is integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level. But, if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Warren Buffett

These days the word integrity is thrown around almost as often as the word awesome. And in the same way few things can be accurately described as awesome, I find few of our celebrated leaders demonstrate integrity.

Witness the news of the past few weeks where countless celebrities, sports stars, government officials, and business people demonstrated a lack of integrity in their behavior. Are we expecting too much out of these media-hyped people?

Integrity is defined as an adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness in moral character or honesty. And unlike other knowledge and skills of leadership, integrity is not something one can learn and experiment with now and then.

We should seriously question the leadership of those who have failed us with a lack of integrity. Leaders in business and elsewhere need to consistently demonstrate integrity or we should reject them. Because without integrity there can be no true leadership. And unlike other qualities of leadership, integrity is either there or it isn’t.

So what does this say about the fallen leaders we honor so highly in our society? Did they delude us or did we delude ourselves?

Identifying integrity in someone is challenging because it is found within a person’s moral fiber or character. It isn’t something they can simply document on a resume or easily demonstrate in an interview. Integrity is proven through consistent behavior over time and verified by the people around them.

“The people with whom a person works, and especially subordinates, know in a few weeks whether he or she has integrity or not,” writer and management consultant Peter Drucker stated in The Daily Drucker. “They may forgive a person for a great deal of incompetence, ignorance, insecurity, or bad manners. But they will not forgive a lack of integrity in that person.”

Many charismatic leaders enjoy lots of media attention, but charisma can only go so far if there isn’t a solid foundation of integrity beneath the surface. We should question the supposedly strong leaders the media presents us with because simply reaching celebrity status does not make for a strong leader. In fact, it could mean just the opposite.

Great leaders model integrity through their honesty and by doing the right thing no matter the circumstances. Those leaders with integrity do what is right for the organization and the people within it—even when he or she may gain nothing from the outcome.

Strong leaders demonstrate an indisputable track record of integrity throughout their career. Look for it and demand it in those you choose to follow. Integrity is not the only quality to look for in a leader, but it may very well be the most vital.

Mark Craemer       www.craemerconsulting.com