For several years, I have been using a hypothetical in my business ethics courses involving the head of a non-profit who brings in a fundraising whiz to help the organization survive. While he is settling in and before he has had time to rescue the organization with his fundraising wizardry, she has asked the staff to accept a freeze on raises and hiring, and has cut other expenses, and even some staff. She asks the new fundraiser to live with his dilapidated office, though she had promised him a redecoration while recruiting him. But he objects:
“He insists that she stick to the terms he had been promised when she was recruiting him; not only that, he states that he had been willing to delay the promised renovation of the small, shabby office of his predecessor for six months, but he will wait no longer. It’s a new paint job and new furniture by the end of the month, or he will leave, and maybe sue.”
The head of the foundation is perplexed:
“She is certain now that the school will not survive without the rescuer’s talent. But she is also convinced that if he doesn’t go along with the reduction in benefits, she’ll have a staff rebellion on her hands. And the thought of him renovating his office while the rest of the staff was enduring riffs and cuts is too horrible to contemplate.”
In discussions with managers, staff, and business school students, I have heard overwhelming support for the position that the non-profit executive needs to block the renovation. Whether, in a narrow sense, the new employee “has a right” to it or not, the message a costly renovation would send is too destructive to the morale of the staff and the integrity of management. This is basic leadership ethics. No class in which I have presented this hypothetical has seemed to think this is even a close call. The debate is usually about whether the fundraiser should be fired now, or later.
So why, then, does President Obama not see that now is an irresponsible time to undertake a costly refurnishing of his office in the White House, which, unlike the office the new fundraiser had to accept, is far from being a pit of despond in its current condition? I don’t want to hear the rationalization that Clinton and Bush fixed up their offices—that’s beside the point. The problem is timing and appearances. This is a man who told us in February, when he unveiled his budget :
“There are times where you can afford to redecorate your house and there are times where you need to focus on rebuilding its foundation.”
Nor do I care that the remodeling is privately funded. Lots of Americans can’t pay their mortgages, and nobody is publicly funding them. There are periods when imperial leadership styles bolster public confidence and trust, and periods when they undermine trust and credibility. President Obama is supposed to be unusually intelligent, and yet it does not take unusual intelligence to conclude that September, 2010, is in the latter category. Clearly, for Obama to remodel his office during a recession is worse for morale and confidence than the fundraiser insisting on a renovation, because the fundraiser, while part of the management team, is only making his leader look insincere and irresponsible. Obama is the leader, he is making himself look insincere and irresponsible, and the United State is just a wee bit more important than a struggling non-profit.
And my students believed that the fundraiser should be fired.
This is an ethical blind spot for the President, and the remodeling isn’t the first evidence of it. It will cost him more than the price of new curtains, and should. It is a breach of integrity and trust, and if Obama can’t see that, he doesn’t comprehend the nature of leadership.