Trust and “The Paradoxical Commandments” of Dr. Keith

In case you were wondering what was on that third tablet that Moses dropped…

I’m preparing a long business ethics program for a large corporation with some ethics issues (which is to say, for a large corporation), and while reviewing my files on business leadership re-discovered some material that I hadn’t looked at for a long while. One of them was “Anyway,” a poem that was also turned into an inspirational book by its author, Dr. Kent M. Keith.  He first wrote it for student leaders in 1968 while an undergraduate at Harvard.

One wonders if what he called “The Paradoxical Commandments” would have occurred to anyone but a student, before he could become jaded, cynical, disillusioned, or stuffed with so many scholarly  details, controversies and nuances regarding ethics that such an idealistic view was tainted forever.  (I should note that Dr. Keith has obviously become none of those things, perhaps because he was able to remain true to his own youthful advice.)

The poem is really about trust, the essence of ethics. There is no question that those who trust—in people, in institutions, in justice, in fairness—will inevitably be betrayed and disappointed, sometimes tragically.  Yet to stop trusting in those things, which so much human experience and simple logic dictates is the safest, most sensible course, is to damn one’s life and the society we live in to perpetual mediocrity, fear, and darkness. Democracy is based on trust of an idea: that human beings can be trusted to live their own lives, and that under the inspiration and catalyst of freedom, will create, persevere, love and build a healthy and happy society. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that trusting this idea is risky and foolish, yet trust is its only hope for fruition. So we must trust anyway.

I’ve never posted Dr. Keith’s poem on Ethics Alarms before. I should have. Here it is: Continue reading

Romney, Firing, Leadership, and Ethics Bob’s Lament

Yes, yes, firing people is one thing Donald Trump does well too. Shut up.

Ethics Bob Stone sent in a comment late last night that I replied to, but that I think deserves more discussion, on several points. Responding to my Ethics Hero designation for Ron Paul for coming to his adversary’s defense over Romney’s now infamous remark about firing people, Bob wrote:

“…I think Romney’s “I like to fire people”–even taken IN context–displays an inner heartlessness. I know about creative destruction, and I myself have taken actions to lay off people, and even fired a couple face-to-face. I did what needed to be done. No apologies.

“But did I like it? I HATED it.

“Romney’s comment seems of a kind with his strapping the family dog on his car roof for a 500-mi trip, or his advocacy of breaking up families to deport the parent or child who’s illegal. Gingrich was right.”

There are several issues here, some minor. Continue reading

Paterno, Hoover, and Jones’s First Law

Would Uncle Walt have resisted the curse of Jones's First Law?

Jones’ First Law, one of many useful corollaries to Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will.”) is usually stated:

“Anyone who makes a significant contribution to any field of endeavor, and stays in that field long enough, becomes an obstruction to its progress – in direct proportion to the importance of his original contribution.”

This week was a good one for Jones (whoever he was; I can’t seem to find out) if not for the rest of us, because two classic examples of his principle were on display:  Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who managed to stay coach long enough to unravel his legacy and help lay the groundwork for an ethical, moral, legal, public relations, and financial catastrophe for the institution he had dedicated his life to, and J. Edgar Hoover, the subject of a newly-released Clint Eastwood directed film that shows how he too stayed long enough as the key figure of an institution he built—the FBI—to become an embarrassment to it. Continue reading

Thanking Dick Williams…Finally

The late Dick Williams, doing what great leaders do

If you are not a baseball fan, or under the age of thirty, you probably never heard of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 84. I never met Williams myself, but I have been indebted to him for four decades. I never told him the immense difference he made in my life, just by doing his job.

In the winter of 1967, I was a devoted fan of my home town team, the Boston Red Sox, and had been since 1962.  Over that period I had listened to every single baseball game on my transistor radio when a game wasn’t on TV, which was most of the time, or when I wasn’t at the game, which was almost always the case. I was the only person I knew who followed the team, and for good reason: it was torture. The Red Sox were hopelessly mediocre on the way to awful, and hadn’t had a winning season in more than ten years.

It is a great character builder to follow the fortunes of a terrible baseball team. Almost every day, for six months, you are let down, and yet return to the scene of your despair the next, attempting to muster hope while steeling yourself against likely disappointment. You find yourself finding things to appreciate other than winning: the gallant veteran player who “plays the right way” (Eddie Bressoud, shortstop, 1962-1965); the exciting rookie who gives promise of a better future (Tony Conigliaro, right fielder—rest in peace, Tony); the unique talent who is worth watching for his own sake (Dick Radatz, relief pitcher, 1962-1966). These things help, but following a perennial losing team and caring about them is like being punched in the gut four or five days a week without knowing which day you’re getting it.

Since 1965, I had always reserved seats for the first day of the season and one of the last two home games, just in case those last games would be crucial to a (hahahaha!) Red Sox pennant drive. This was especially pathetic, since the team was getting worse. They had finished in a tie for 9th place in 1966, and as the 1967 season loomed, Vegas had them installed as 100-1 underdogs to win the American League pennant. In truth, the odds should have been longer. Nonetheless, I wrote the Red Sox and got my tickets, this time for the next to last day of the season.

The team was full of rookies and near rookies, and appropriately had hired a minor league manager, Dick Williams, to be the new skipper. Williams was something else, however: he was a gifted leader. One day, in the middle of Spring Training, a Boston scribe asked the new manager what the prospects were for the upcoming season. Would the team escape the cellar? Would there be forward progress? Williams’ answer was instant front page news:

“We’ll win more than we lose.” Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Ex-Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman

Jim Riggleman is a major league baseball manager of modest accomplishments, one of the forty or so men in the rotating pool that teams will use to fill manager vacancies with low-risk options rather than try someone promising but with little experience. He had a one-year contract with the hapless Washington Nationals that included a team option for a second, which the manager felt the team should pick up now, rather than at the end of the season.

Riggleman believed that he had some leverage. The Nationals have been surging since star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has returned from an injury, and are, for the first time in the team’s  short time in Washington (they were once the Montreal Expos), flirting with a winning record more than half-way through the schedule. But as is often the case with players when a club option is involved, the Nationals saw no reason to make a decision on Riggleman’s contract until the season was over. A lot can happen in three months. General manager Mike Rizzo told Riggleman he would just have to wait. That’s what a team option is, after all. The team’s option. Continue reading

Quote of the Day: Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt made his famous “Man in the Arena” speech, one of the most inspiring calls to courage and personal character ever spoken. Its most quoted passage is this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

It’s an important quote, and not only because it carries the essence of a great man and leader. Teddy’s words should be revisited regularly by all those, including me, who stand on the sidelines passing judgment on the words and deeds of men and women who devote themselves to public service and elected office. It is not that we should not hold them to high standards and subject them to just criticism, for we should. We must always remember, however, that they have had the courage to undertake great responsibility and personal risk to accomplish what they believe is right, and though they may be misguided, mistaken, flawed or unsuccessful, they deserve our respect for that.

[Many thanks to my friend, Tom Vesper, a great trial lawyer and legal ethics specialist, for reminding me of the date and the speech.]

No Time for Brackets

Thank God THAT's taken care of...

I don’t need to go into great detail on this; either it bothers you, or it doesn’t.

I strongly suspect there are many of President Obama’s supporters who are bothered, but will never admit it: hence the silence from the mainstream media. I am certain that there are many on the Right who are bothered, but since they are bothered by everything the President does, their annoyance is easy to dismiss. Many, I know, won’t see it, can’t see it, don’t care, and will just turn their attention other matters with a shrug, if that. For my part, I am bothered because I believe that leaders have to be competent and to engender trust by showing good judgment, and I believe the President of the United States has an added obligation to maintain the weight, credibility, and honor of the office, and therefore its strength.

President Obama’s special invitation to ESPN to come to the White House and announce his bracket picks for the NCAA basketball tournament was as frightening a demonstration of tone-deaf leadership malpractice as I have seen, or read about, from any of the 12 U.S. Presidents of my lifetime. Continue reading

Bret Favre, Meet Derek, LeBron, and Tiger

Recent revelations about Joe DiMaggio’s conduct while doing PR work for the military during World War II shocked some people who had been humming “Mrs. Robinson” over the years. Joe, as insiders had long maintained, really was a selfish and anti-social guy, far from the knight in shining armor that the public took him to be. But he played his hero role well when he was in the public eye, and that is to his credit: DiMaggio met his obligation as a hero-for-hire. Athletic heroes are challenged to live up to their on-field character, and not surprisingly, few are equal to the task. One who was has been back in the news lately: Stan (the Man) Musial, the St. Louis baseball great who will soon be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

In these anxious times when every institution and every champion seems to betray us eventually, sports heroes who can remain untarnished are especially valuable, which is one reason why they earn so much money. On the field, court, course, ring or track, they can exhibit courage, trustworthiness, selflessness, leadership, sacrifice, diligence, loyalty, fair play and sportsmanship to inspire us and serve as role models for our children. All they have to do is avoid showing that it is all an illusion after the games are over. It shouldn’t be difficult, yet it is.

Tiger Woods only needed to be a responsible and trustworthy husband and father. LeBron James only had to avoid revealing himself as a fame-obsessed child. Derek Jeter only had to resist the impulse to extort the team he symbolized for money he neither deserved or needed. Yet they couldn’t, or wouldn’t do it. They hurt their own images, reputation and legacy beyond repair, but more important, they robbed us of heroes that we sorely need.

The latest addition to the pantheon of fallen idols is Bret Favre, the star NFL quarterback now suffering through the humiliating final season that was more or less guaranteed by his inability to retire while he could still pick up a football. Continue reading

Adrian Fenty and the Leader’s Duty of Likability

Arch Lustberg is an old friend, and also a wise man. He is a communications trainer and expert par excellence, and the number of failed politicians who would have been elected had they hired him is legion, and growing with every election. One of Arch’s mantras is that likability is essential to trust. A public figure can be brilliant, creative, eloquent and effective, but if he or she is not liked, all of those assets may be not be enough to win the support of the public. Arch was proven right once again when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, praised by the D.C. media for a series of reforms in the city, notably of the infamously bloated and ineffective school system, lost his bid for re-election. Fenty, as reported by the Washington Post, really believed that doing his job would be enough, that the symbolic gestures and image-building activities used by savvy leaders to cement their electoral base were unnecessary, a waste of time. Now he is out, defeated by an opponent who embraced the endorsement of Marion Barry, whose corruption of the D.C. political culture still endures, three decades after he was mayor.

If you think I am going to argue that Adrian Fenty is a principled public servant laid low by public ignorance and warped priorities, you are wrong. Continue reading