At Enron, as at a host of other firms with recently tarnished reputations, those individuals most disgraced in scandal have been the ones once regarded as the smartest in the room.
Surprising? Not for experts in ethics.
Though everyone struggles to recognize his or her own ethical lapses, the task of catching one's own errors in judgment becomes especially challenging for high achievers, whether they run major companies or head up a small household. Reasons are several, but one looms largest: People in authority tend to lack the honest input that everyone needs to maintain a moral life.
"It's not so much a matter of one being intoxicated by the power. It's [a matter of] one being sheltered from the feedback," says Doug Lennick, an organizational consultant and coauthor of "Moral Intelligence" with Fred Kiel (Wharton, 2005).
In observing the past decade's rash of scandals, ethicists see a pattern of self-delusion among smart people in a range of roles. Former Chicago Tribune columnist and commentator Armstrong Williams lost his job last year after taking $240,000 from the Department of Education to promote particular policies. Former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers is to be sentenced this month after his conviction in an $11 million fraud case. He could spend the rest of his life in prison. Earlier this year, defrocked priest Paul Shanley, once esteemed as a gifted youth-outreach worker, was sentenced to at least 12 years in prison for child rape. The list goes on.
People at all levels tend to see their own behavior as moral, says Michael Josephson, founder of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. But the successful have a particular stake in maintaining a positive self-image, so they often evade two potentially humbling questions: "Is what I'm doing deceptive?" and "Am I resolving dilemmas in a self-interested way?"
Reading about frequent episodes of ruin, however, may not encourage many individuals to examine their own destructive habits because most don't want to face them, according to Sydney Finkelstein, author of "Why Smart Executives Fail." Yet the wise one, he says, will cultivate a network of frank talking sources as well as a personal capacity to hear and respond to criticism.
"Acknowledging to the world that you're not quite as successful as you thought, and as everyone else thought, is unacceptable" for too many successful people, says Finkelstein, professor of leadership and strategy at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "That's when the fudging of numbers begins."
Having judicious confidants around to serve as sounding boards for moral dilemmas is essential, sources agree, especially for the most accomplished of individuals. But not everyone agrees on the best way to use such a network.
One school of thought regards moral decisionmaking as tricky ground where all conclusions should be subject to rethinking, and the search for moral direction is enhanced by multiple voices. In this camp, "all cats are gray, and it's a sign of maturity to recognize that," according to the Rev. Steven Shussett, associate for spiritual formation at the Presbyterian Church (USA). In his view, sin tempts all, and therefore decisions involving the fate of others should always include a measure of caution and self-doubt. After all, he says, sinners run the risk of being wrong and not knowing it.
"When people are sure they know the answer [to a moral dilemma], you can be certain they don't," Mr. Shussett says. What's more, admitting some doubt might actually enhance a leader's credibility. "People respect someone who can say, 'Given the information we have, this is the decision we have made. Should other information come along, we are prepared to think it through differently.' "
Others dispute the notion that certitude is a sure sign of self-delusion or probable waywardness from a moral path. Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher at the University of Southern California, says smart people get blinded to their own immoral actions because "an unsatisfied desire is the time bomb that ticks away in a person."
Over time, he says, high achievers with considerable autonomy find the forces staving off their desires for money, sex, or power "begin to fall away."
To keep at bay such festering passions, Willard says, people need firm resolve to pursue "the good that flows from their function" in life, such as providing a worthy service to the public through a business enterprise. Such resolve, he says, depends on a deep certainty about what is right and wrong.
"One of the things that's come up over and over about George Bush is that he is too certain," Willard says. "We all know that that's a possibility, but usually people don't look at the other side in terms of what uncertainty does.... If you can make up stories for The New York Times [as former reporter Jayson Blair did] and get by with it, why not? That sort of behavior is not a reflection of too much moral certainty. That's the result of something very different."
It stems instead, Willard suggests, from a worldview that sees no moral absolutes.
In Willard's view, a single confidant rather than an entire network can be sufficient to keep a successful person morally grounded, especially when coupled with a regular, private journaling habit.
He urges those in authority to write daily on two questions: "When have I served the good of my function [as a family member or professional, for instance]? And when have I served myself?"
Others also see value in reflecting regularly on certain questions. Lennick urges leaders to "play the freeze game," which involves stopping often to ask, "Is this right? What was I doing when I made the decision? What was I feeling?"
Josephson says decisionmakers can help defend against moral blindness by asking if a particular decision would advance trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and lawfulness among various stakeholders.
Whether the early 21st century's scandals will ultimately increase awareness of human capacities for self-aggrandizement and self-delusion remains to be seen. In the meantime, those offering equipment for self-improvement in the moral realm intend to keep making it available.