Monday, September 28, 2015

Leadership and Ethical Dilemmas

Philosophy concerns itself with the way things ought to be, with a goal to deliver the greatest benefit while delivering the least amount of harm.  The dilemmas of modern-day philosophy occur when the benefit of an action is enjoyed by one person or group while the damage or inconvenience is experienced by another.   This is also the most difficult dilemma of leadership.

In practical terms, it is impossible to accomplish anything without incurring some cost.   Every individual decides for himself when gaining something is worth the price he must pay.   But in a societal context, the benefit and cost are visited on different parties – so it is impossible to accomplish anything in society without inflicting some cost on someone.

Inflicting costs for others means doing harm to or inflicting hardship upon them.  The typical situation of a commercial organization is in managing the exchange of benefits and hardships among multiple parties.

  • The customer receives the benefit of the hardship (price and effort) of obtaining it.   
  • The employee suffers the hardship of producing it for the benefit of their wage.   
  • The vendor suffers the hardship of providing service for the benefit of their payment.  
  • The investor receives the benefit of profit for the hardship of the risk he has taken with the capital he contributes.   

The management of a firm ideally seeks to arrange that it is a fair trade for all parties – because it must be in order to ensure their continued participation and the sustainability of the firm. While it is apparent that present-day leaders are beginning to recognize this, they are still limited in the scope of their vision to the firm and those it immediately impacts. An executive that makes a decision that will increase the market share of his own firm to benefit his employees and investors is by the same decision scheming to decrease the market share of other companies, harming their employees and investors.  He is unconcerned for the welfare of his competitors and their stakeholders.

Every decision a leader makes helps someone and harms someone.   The lower the level of management, the smaller and more practical the dilemmas they must solve.   A senior executive determines whether establishing a productive facility in a third-world nation is good for the world economy, but a front-line manager determines whether employees with families should be given preferential status for selecting vacation dates.   Therefore, the higher a person's office, the greater damage they inflict upon others.

A leader must decide which people deserve to benefit at the expense of others, and what level of benefit is worth what level of harm.   Personal decisions, in which benefit and harm are both visited upon the person who makes the decision, have no such dilemmas and can be decided casually based on preferences.   Leadership decisions affect the lives of others, and must be undertaken with greater deliberation based on principles.

Leaders who are unwilling to make any decision that does harm to some person or group of people are not able to lead.   Those who are unwilling to acknowledge and consider the harm they do are not able to lead ethically.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Morality, Ethics, and Strategy

I've written a number of posts lately that touch upon the concepts of ethics – so while this post may be a bit philosophical, I feel it’s important to touch briefly on the fundamentals of ethics.  The basic concept of ethics is vaguely defined, often undermined by those who wish redefine morality to justify behavior that does not fit the existing definition.   So a brief meditation on fundamentals seems necessary.

In many instances, my position and complaint is that Very Bad Things are done by those who are myopic, considering the exigencies of the moment while ignoring the broader and more long-term good.  And this is similar to the definition of ethics.   Ethics describes the behavior that is necessary to achieve a desired moral outcome, while being attentive to whether those behaviors cause greater harm than good on a larger scale.

Morals are often relative.  Whatever is “good for me” is considered to be good – or if not “good for me” than “good for my friends.”   In that sense, even regimes as reprehensible as Nazi Germany can be said to have moral principles – they sought to render a benefit to one specific group of people (Aryans) with callus indifference to the detriment in did to any others, and often were willing to do grievous harm to others to provide positive outcomes for their preferred beneficiaries. 

“The ends justify the means” was a fundamental principle of Nazi morality, and a similar attitude is taken by groups that many find to be morally questionable in the present day.   In commercial organizations, it is distressingly common for the investors to be served with indifference to the welfare of employees, customers, and society at large. And often, with an eye to granting investors a short-term benefit in ways that are harmful to their long-term interests.

And so, morality remains highly subjective: they differ among cultures.  Very often what is good for some is bad for others, so what is moral depends on which groups in society a person believes to be entitled to benefits and which groups can be used without regard for their welfare.

Ethics tends to be clearer, but only by accepting morality as a given. If one accepts without question that a given outcome is good, ethics is purely technical: it describes the way in which that outcome can best be achieved.

Morality and ethics are often derided or ignored for the sake of practicality.   The practical man does whatever is needed to achieve an outcome, without considering whether the outcome or the actions taken to achieve it are proper.   He will burn down his home to kill a cockroach, because it is practical: if the fire does not kill the bug, then at least he will have no home to be infested.   Problem solved.  Bigger problem created.

Doing the right thing often means accepting constraints: to achieve a specific goal while keeping the bigger picture in mind means setting aside the most practical course of action and seeking ways to accomplish the goal that are not harmful to broader and more long-term interests.  

Ethics is about conscious self-restraint to achieve a good without doing greater harm, and an ethical person pauses to consider the big picture before taking action to achieve a specific goal – which often means taking a less convenient or expedient course of action to achieve that goal. 

This is why whose who consider themselves “practical men” have little use for ethics, and it is likewise the reason that practical men do considerable damage to the broader and more long-term interests of themselves and those around them.

It is also the reason that those who think strategically cannot shirk ethics and morality.   One must consider the bigger picture to derive a plan that will do more good than harm.   Those who ignore ethics are simply not fit for strategic thinking.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Innovation as Survival

I do not believe it is a distortion or exaggeration to suggest that innovation is the primary survival skill of the human species.  It is man’s mind that enables him to survive, and innovation is the manner by which we are able to survive in a broader range of climates than any other species.   Consider the brilliant success of humanity over the past few centuries, and recognize that it has nothing to do with any physical adaptation.

As a species, we have overcome most of the threats to our survival and perpetuation.  In fact, most of the threats we face in the present age are things of our own creation: overpopulation, warfare, pollution and the depletion of resources, and the like.   It is the dark side of our own inventions that has threatened our existence:  steel and gunpowder have made warfare a more serious threat, industrialization chemicals do great harm to the environment, agricultural science depletes the land, television stupefies the mind.   The very things created to help humanity have the greatest potential to harm us, even to render the world unfit for habitation.

And our success has itself become a liability.   In our boredom, we find ways to destroy ourselves, through our cultural stagnation, the religious and political ideologies that put us against one another.  The Mayans, Romans, Russians, and British all built great civilizations that crumbled in the decadence and ennui of people who had nothing better to do than destroy themselves.  

And the America of today has become so spoiled and decadent that it is has become negligent.  Americans enjoy wealthy lives, but produce little in terms of physical goods – they are dependent on manufacturing operations overseas and, increasingly, import even engineers and technical workers.   Should the American dollar collapse, these ties will be severed and the nation will lack the facilities and competence to produce for its own consumption.

If one accepts that creativity is necessary for human survival, it then follows that our well being hinges on the ability to generate and implement new creative ideas.  It was at one time the academic and commercial institutions that fueled success – but these institutions have become destructive of their own ends.  The academy has failed because it no longer serves to encourage new ideas, but to preserve traditional ways of thinking against new ideas.   The commercial sector has always been focused on profit rather than progress, and when progress threatens profit, then progress must be halted by any means necessary.  As a result, the best products are not always made, and patents are abused to protect the commercial viability of less efficient or effective products by ensuring that discoveries that would make them better are not delivered to the market.  

There is also the problem of consumer demand for cheap and convenient solutions that provide immediate satisfaction, without a broader concern.  The electric automobile is a solution to one of the greatest causes of pollution that is advancing environmental deterioration – but it costs too much and is inconvenient to charge, so consumers continue using petroleum-powered machinery.   Convenience food that is laden with additives and preservatives known to be harmful is still purchased in great quantities because people would rather not take the time and effort to cook.

And both the manufacturer and consumer are prone to remaining set in their habits until some crisis compels them to change.   Given that today’s technology is capable of creating crises on a major scale, the damage may be too great to correct once it has become severe enough to motivate change.

So what can be expected is not for western culture to reverse its course, but to continue until it has destroyed itself, and the cycle will begin again as one of the developing nations – perhaps Brazil or India – rises to become the new superpower for a time, until it too becomes weakened by its own decadence and falls to be replaced by yet another.   It seems to follow in the cycle of history.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Culture, Behavior, and Taste

In the context of sociology, “habitus” refers to the lifestyle of a distinct group of people that are demonstrated in the routine activities of daily life, adherence to which defines an individual’s affiliations in the social world.  In particular, it pertains to natural behaviors rather than affectations, though there can be some argument that a behavior must be consciously practiced for some time before it becomes natural.

This concept seems to lack the notion of self-consciousness and tends to exclude that habits may be affected or purposefully adopted by an individual as a means of distinguishing himself from others of his social group.   Some habits and tastes are adopted to fit in, others to set oneself apart – though likely the degree to which a person chooses one or the other depends on the value of distinction in their culture.

It also seems inaccurate that habits and tastes accrue accidentally.  Every culture has coaches who encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.   Parents, teachers, and peers work upon an individual from the earliest years of their lives, seeking to intentionally influence their behaviors and tastes.   Some habits are picked up unconsciously from people who do not have an explicit intention to modify the behavior of others – but my sense is that most habits are taught.

It is also likely that people are unaware of their habitus.    They behave in a way that feels normal for them, make choices based on their preferences, and like what they like without ever questioning the forces that have shaped their tastes.   There is very little deliberation and compulsion about our actions in daily life, and few instances in which an individual makes a concerted effort to control his own behavior, though some individuals are particularly self-conscious in everything they do, most go about their business without much thought.

Much of what a person does is culturally derived.  Consider the consumption of caviar – a person may consume it conspicuously in order to give the impression that he has discerning tastes, and claim to enjoy it even though he finds it quite horrible.   Anything that is an “acquired taste” is by admission intentionally acquired.

Even genuine behavior, the things we consume for enjoyment when no-one else is watching, is culturally derived.   Keeping with the example of caviar, wealthier individuals are more likely to have encountered it when interacting within their own social circles than are less wealthy individuals.   Further, he would find less toleration of class-inappropriate behavior in the company of his fellows.  But more frequent exposure to something makes it more familiar, more comfortable, more “normal.”

And so, habitus seems to be very restricted to the things that a person feels compelled to do when they are conscious of their social standing.  Whether a person wishes to communicate belonging to their actual class or aspires to masquerade as a person of a different class, their behavior in such situations is highly affected rather than natural.  And my sense is that the majority of behavior is unconscious – it may be that class has an indirect influence, but it is not as important as the concept of habitus might suggest.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Narcissistic Leadership

One of the most common abnormalities among managers is an inflated sense of self-worth and importance that arises from the esteem given to those who have authority over others.  A manager directs the activities of others, and may come to believe that he is superior to them in skills and potential – when such is not the case at all.  A hospital manager who has administrative control over a team of surgeons is not himself a surgeon, and does not have the knowledge or skills to direct their work – but over time he may come to think so. 

This is especially true of managers who experience feelings of inferiority – it is stressful for them to have control over people whose work they do not understand.  So as a defense mechanism, they fantasize that they understand it, and that they are in a leadership position because of their technical competence.  When they act on this fantasy, they do harm.   Their delusion of grandeur is a compensation for their feeling of self-doubt and insufficiency.

The negative impact of this is clear: when a manager who is charged with coordinating knowledge workers does not have superior skills or knowledge, and if he does not control his ego he will invariably begin micromanaging their work, abusing the authority of his position to demand that they do things they know to be wrong and harmful.

Aside of the functional damage that can be done by a narcissistic manager, they are damaging to the morale of their employees.   To be ordered to do something wrong or harmful, to be ignored, and to be unappreciated all degrade the morale of an expert worker.  Their initial impulse is rebellion, but when their rebellion is met with further sanctions, they either seek to escape.  If escape is not possible, then they cease to contribute their expertise and follow the orders they are given, even orders they know to be wrong.

Narcissistic managers tend to favor submissive employees: yes-men and lickspittles.  As such, they promote and reward those who cater to their ego and neglect those who are competent and capable.   When they drive away competent employees, they replace them with submissive ones.   And thus, the entire operation is compromised – the narcissistic manager is surrounded by incompetent but fawning employees, who provide only positive feedback.   This leads to blind-spots, misjudgments, and unsound decisions.

The feelings of inadequacy are then exacerbated by a lack of performance: outside his protective circle of submissive supporters, his incompetence is obvious, and the performance of his business unit suffers immensely.   Sometimes, negative criticism can be a wake-up call, but more often they resist it, feel the world does not appreciate the good work they are doing, and they become hostile and defensive.  In other words, they become delusional and disconnected from reality.   This spiral continues until their operation becomes dysfunctional and they are removed from their position.

In sum, narcissistic leaders are dangerous to their organizations. Their lack of empathy, their poor ability to accept criticism, their unwillingness to reflect on their own actions, their extreme readiness for conflict, their vengefulness, and their own isolation from real, actual people lends them the potential for catastrophic decisions and inhumane leadership behavior.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Power and Innovation

I read an article that spoke of “power” of individuals within organizations, and it struck me that the use (or abuse) of power is often a force that prevents an organization from being innovative.

Specifically, power is developed over time. The word “experience” is often misused when the issue is actually one of power.   A newcomer to an organization has no power, and cannot contribute his ideas until he becomes accepted – he must play by the rules.   As his tenure increases, he goes through the stages in power development – first testing the waters by covertly ignoring the rules, then overtly challenging the rules, and eventually matriculates into a position to be a rule-maker.

The problem is that it may take many years for a person to have sufficient power to even suggest their ideas.   This is likely the reason that organizations with a long employee tenure are not capable of being innovative.   There are too many rule-makers, who are devoted to preserving the status quo that has placed them in a position of power.   Newcomers, who bring fresh ideas in from the outside, have too little power to be heard. An employee with an innovative idea must wait until he has sufficient tenure even to suggest it, and by that time he has become institutionalized.

Part of the problem is in the perception of power – and since power is itself a matter of perception (a person’s belief about their own power as compared to that of others), the perception becomes the reality.   Consider the author’s four-stage model of power development:
  1. Powerless – An individual who has no power, makes not attempt to exercise power, and allows others to manipulate him.
  2. Autonomous – An individual who has no power, makes no attempt to exercise power, but does not allow others to manipulate him
  3. Assertive- An autonomous individual who has no power, but occasionally attempts to influence others.
  4. Powerful – An assertive individual who usually attempts to influence others and is generally successful in so doing.

My sense is that this mashes together two qualities that should be kept well separated – influencing others and being influenced by them.   Such a model supports a mindset in which a person wins power by getting their way without helping others – or in less flattering terms, a “powerful” person is encouraged to be a useless manipulator.   And I would have to agree that this is a very reasonable and realistic perspective on the manner in which power is applied.

A collaborative person commands the service of others and is willing to serve them as well, and that seems to me a better and more productive perspective.   Ideally, a person with power would use that ability to serve the organization rather than their own self-interests by helping those who are less powerful to get a fair hearing when they have an innovative idea – rather than discouraging and suppressing beneficial ideas because it is not in their personal interest.

But that is speaking of ideals – and my sense is that truly innovative organizations attempt to do this, whereas organizations that are incapable of innovating do not.   In the end, it is not the existence of power but the manner in which it is used that makes it beneficial or harmful – and in a culture where power means ignoring others while pursuing a personal agenda, innovation simply cannot occur.