MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Leading with integrity, part 1: Does a hard line lead to a slippery slope?

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

Leading with Integrity by Peter Hirst

When prominent CEOs resigned from White House advisory councils a while ago, their action sent a message—sincerely held personal beliefs and espoused corporate values trumped potential business benefits of remaining close to political power. The names of these CEOs reverberated through the public discourse attracting considerable praise of their personal integrity. Yet, far too often, business leaders are cast in less flattering light. Whether it’s environmental hazards caused by a company’s products, exploitative employment practices, or dubious financial dealings, labels like “greedy,” “selfish,” and “unprincipled” seem to be part of the job description of a successful CEO. Could one almost be forgiven for these unpleasant qualities if the balance sheet looks good?

Leadership and career success aren’t the same thing

My MIT Sloan School of Management colleague, Deborah Ancona, Professor of Organization Studies, points to a certain confusion in our society about leadership and career success. “They are not the same!” she says. “Leadership is about acting with courage to do the right thing and helping people realize their goals and aspirations while creating business success. Sometimes, however, in our quest for power and influence, real leadership gets lost and the fine line between negative and positive characteristics blurs.” When does confidence become narcissism, for example?

“People who seem to have a good sense of what they want and what they and others need to do—that could be a positive aspect of leadership, but leaders need to be careful not to go over the line where self and other gets distorted,” she warns. However, keeping on the morally right side of this fine line can be difficult. In fact, a recent study shows that organizations, especially those that endorse status hierarchies, may be inadvertently enabling the kind of self-serving behavior that could ultimately lead to questionable and even illegal business practices.

One could argue that earning a qualification from a top business school like MIT Sloan is a sure way to ascend to a higher level in a corporate hierarchy. While that may be true, what matters even more is how one behaves once there.

Ancona acknowledges that “Students question why they have to learn about integrity or distributed leadership or empowerment—the things that a lot of the theory of leadership says are important—when they see examples of people who cheat and lie and get ahead in the world.”

Every choice you make, makes a difference

So how do leaders find themselves in these unhappy situations? Perhaps many start out as well-intentioned and decent people, but become conditioned by their environment, reinforced by feedback loops that seem to reward small transgressions and lead inexorably to ever lager ones? My MIT Sloan colleague, Roberto Fernandez, Professor of Organization Studies, teaches this idea and strategies for raising awareness for when, how, and why it can happen, and explores individual and organizational solutions to intervene and redirect such “slides down the slippery slope.”

Having said that, surely there may also be people who are simply and fundamentally selfish, egotistical, or worse? History strongly suggests this to be true. This being the case, can we differentiate and should we respond differently? Or, to restate the hypothetical question behind this essay, must we accept these behaviors as necessary and inevitable requirements and consequences of a political, economic, and social system that nevertheless delivers, on average, consistently increasing wealth and well-being? I would like to think the answers to these questions are “yes,” and “no,” respectively. The moral and ethical dilemma between idealism and pragmatism is similarly both necessary for our system to work at all and provides a fertile margin for willful or “unintended” mischief.

Ancona’s response to those who challenge the need for integrity in leadership is two-fold. First, the attractiveness of narcissistic leaders is short lived and can cause good people to leave companies where toxic leadership is the norm. “Sure, they are confident, they have broad networks, they are clear about where they want to go. But that attractiveness fades when people start to see that these leaders are only interested in getting ahead,” she cautions. “It is better to focus on vision and solving tough problems, not on ego enhancement. And often that vision is about creating a new future; a future where things are better than they are now.” Her other piece of advice is about making the tough choices as people go through their careers. “Do you want to be a leader or do you want to get ahead? Sometimes these go together, but sometimes it takes courage to just do the right thing.”

We will explore factors that influence decisions and why shared success is right for your organization in my next post on principled leadership.

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