In 1962 President John F. Kennedy challenged the country to land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of that decade. Several years ago, Ron Howard released a wonderful movie that recounts the quest, In the Shadow of the Moon.
One scene in the film particularly captured my attention. As you may recall, the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969 was the first attempt at a successful moon landing. While Michael Collins circled the moon in the Apollo capsule, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface in a landing craft. When the landing craft separated from the Apollo capsule, Michael Collins said, “You guys are upside down,” to which Armstrong responded, “Well, someone is upside down!”
As I thought about it, I realized both men were right–and both were wrong. In space there is no gravity to provide a visceral frame of reference: the human body cannot tell by internal signals whether it is upside down or not. As there is no upside down in space, then, the term for a physical reality, gravity, that affects everything we do on earth doesn’t fit either man’s situation on the moon.
That brief dialogue in space provides a powerful metaphor to illustrate why companies need to be hotbeds of morality. If you find yourself in a corporate culture without a strong moral underpinning, where the concept of acting ethically is not as basic and unspoken as air or water or gravity, then how do co-workers judge what is right and what is wrong?
Who is or can be right side up in a too-flexible working situation? Surely we arrive in the workplace with a sense of integrity. But if we find ourselves in an organization that doesn’t champion principled conduct, it will take its toll on us because no action is simple and predictable—we can find ourselves out of bounds, “written up,” or worse and not even know the cryptic definition of what we did wrong. In a culture that lacks the gravitational pull of forthright behavior, people can lose their moral bearings.
Some executives or employees may take inappropriate actions which they personally find to be perfectly acceptable. People start practicing situational ethics. Actions are judged in a vacuum, rather than in an oxygen-rich atmosphere of the virtuous certitude of right and wrong. Or perhaps no consideration is given to how the steps take effect on others in the present and future—exercising foresight takes too much time, and time is money. All is allowable if it fits within the dictum of expediency: “If I can obtain my goals, any action I take is OK!” The traditional Golden Rule is sent to Communications for editing: “He with the most gold wins,” and the memo is diligently sent out to each team member in each department.
My friend John Marchica, in his excellent book The Accountable Organization (Davis-Black Publishing, 2004), writes, “Integrity is not incompatible with competition, with seeking to win and earn a profit. Honest competition brings out the best in us, and profits ensure that an organization endures and is able to impact people’s lives, be they customers, investors, or employees.” He’s right: working in honest competition makes the project a challenge, and challenges are fun; everyone knows and follows the rules and the fun comes from honing one’s skills, preparing deeper and more carefully than the competitor, then going out to perform at the team member’s peak—and perhaps winning. If business is another form of war or sports, that’s how it’s done best to win—fair and square, not by taking shortcuts with rules, manners, and morals, and turning everyone upside down with stress. Profits take a back seat when stress runs rampant.
Leaders, therefore, must create a moral landscape where there is a consistency of ethical decision-making shown through word and deed! Once established, maintenance of that healthful environment for work requires lots of diligence. We all know that normally well intentioned co-workers in an effort to reach their goals will sometimes shrink the boundaries of ethical conduct. They start small, by rationalizing their actions: “It will only be this one time. . . .”
But after they do it, they like the result: more gain for less work and/or time. So, rather than considering the rightness of their actions, they start assessing the risk of detection! Allow this to happen and soon you will have an organization with an “Anything goes!” mentality. Its frame of integrity will be skewed, upside down, overwhelming in its strangeness and alienation from what had always been done in that company.
Any company that hopes to be successful for the long term needs to invest in creating a culture built on the granitic foundation of truth and honesty. Few things feel as good as taking actions which align with our highest thoughts and the best of our human nature. Our intellect is far more apt to make mistakes than our conscience–so stock your conscience with right-thinking lessons of ethical conduct. No technology can ensure these traits in people–only those of our kind can do that, smart human leaders.