July 29, 2002
An old Sufi admonition is to sell cleverness to buy bewilderment. Some
will add the quite un-Sufi trailer that truth is but intuition. Current
events reveal that truth, at best, is a relative variable. In actuality,
truth is a very conditioned variable. The conditioning around Bush II's
truths may be cracking just a little bit. Even Teflon® can be scratched
by hard instruments.
My wife asks, "How does this kind of thing happen?" She is asking about the string of revelations flooding media presently. Is there an answer? Maybe not an answer in any definitive sense, yet some thoughts are available.
I am a graduate of Harvard Business School (HBS). Once a matter of some pride, I would tell people my MBA was my union card. Opened lots of doors. Provided entry to many opportunities. Gave connections to networks and so on and so forth. Now, I apologize and hang my head.
There are cultures within which shame remains a powerful stimulant and conditioner of behavior. I was very impressed with shame as a social force during a visit to Bali. Japanese executives will still resign when there is some scandal associated with their company. Shame is not much mentioned in America these days.
All those corpocracy names like Enron, et al. becoming common knowledge? Among the executives, consultants, auditors ad nauseum you will almost surely find HBS graduates (c.f. Jeffrey Skilling, once CEO at Enron). If not Harvard, then Wharton, Stanford, Chicago, MIT and on down the list of prestigious graduate schools of business. All faculties of any repute are laced with HBS graduates.
A recent article in the Financial Times, edited from London mostly, closed by noting, "Nearly all business school officials agree, however, that the schools should not have to take responsibility for actions of their alumni once they leave their campus." ["Business Schools Suffer Post-Enron Soul-Searching," Financial Times,, July 12 2002, p.2]
Does anyone now remember the Nuremberg Trials after WW II? Or the Eichmann defense? Does anyone remember the scientific disclaimer leaving the choice of use up to others? Racism, sexism and all those attitudes easily weather ethical constraints. Such attitudes are learned and instilled rather early in life and then supported strongly within cultural contexts. Folks don't much say "nigger" any more, they just think it.
At HBS, I was attracted to courses dealing with people and organizations then called "Administrative Practices" (AdPrac) which led into Organizational Behavior. Before HBS, I spent six years in an AT&T subsidiary managing (?) large groups of female telephone operators. My conclusion was that I didn't know much about such matters in spite of theoretically relevant educational and pragmatic experiences.
However, I did meet a remarkable man, Douglas McGregor, then a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, formerly President of Antioch College. He was a pathfinder. McGregor suggested going to HBS as it was then the only graduate program in organizational behavior worthy of the name. I also went over to MIT for his seminar. Mind-blowing man. Mind-opening man. Inspirational, too.
Harvard prides itself on dealing with ethics and such. There was then a first year course, Business Responsibility in American Society (BRAS). Some variant has been maintained. The required second year course, Business Policy, was also said to have an ethical orientation. Those responsible for curriculum insist that ethics is a component of all courses offered. And they are correct that the information is available. Question remains. Does the culture support the context? As we are advised, look to results.
My classmates were rough on AdPrac and BRAS. Fluff and window-dressing for the most part, they said. Jokes abounded. At the time I was there, women were not admitted directly. A few brave souls came into the program through Radcliffe as Harvard/Radcliffe program in Business Administration (HARPIES). Between BRAS and HARPIES, given some elitist boys before sexism, you get the general idea. Derision would be a cover-up word.
Many of my classmates went on to prominent positions in American and International business. Some of their corporate affiliations are now newsworthy. As I have written previously, Enron is norm rather than exception. I stand by that assertion. I would defend it if challenged.
I am suggesting that attitudes have importance. I am addressing issues within and beyond ethics.
Now let's try to address fudging. Things like numbers. Sales, revenue, expenses, capitalization and all those words creeping into media accounts presently. I like "capitulation." as a wonderful now buzzword with military overtones as a bonus.
My work took me into many businesses, from the largest to the smallest. Let's use a simple situation as illustration.
Say you are a sales manager responsible for generating revenue. Say your bosses have set up a quota system of some sort: sell so much by such a date in order to keep your job, get your bonus, get in line for promotion, qualify for options and so on and so forth.
Comes the time and you are short. But the Olsen order is just about clinched. If I book the Olsen order now, I make the quota. If it doesn't come in, I cancel later. Ethical quandary? Moral problem? You can handle it, right?
Handling "it" is akin to an alcoholic taking that first drink. Spiral that attitude on up the career paths and management tracks to arrive at Enron, et al.
Forty years ago when I graduated from Harvard Business School, the addictions were clearly evident. The more I saw of business, from the highest levels, the more I learned about fudging. Like white lies, fudging easily becomes norm rather than exception.
When I read the business and political news, I see clear evidence of fudging carried to illogical extremes. I have tracked the corporations and their political connections closely. I am deeply embarrassed that George W. Bush managed to graduate from both Yale and Harvard Business School. Whether he entered with attitude or learned attitude in the process, attitude he has.
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Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine.
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