The United States is more corrupt than Japan, Britain, Australia, Germany, and the Scandinavian nations.
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the US ranks 22 out of 181 countries.
You might take consolation in the fact that America is not endemically corrupt, not a broken society, not an un-drainable swamp, as are many nations in the world.
- But what happens if you add globalization to the mix?
- What happens when you sprinkle graft, bribery, and unholy alliances into the new supranational context?
We in the US have known corruption in the past. What we have not known are its consequences in a more precarious global age.
Three Key Factors
There are at least three factors that should concern us.
- First, leaders today lead in a very different world
- Second, fewer leaders are prepared to handle the new world
- Third, the new world enables the effects of ethical misconduct to scale to unprecedented orders of magnitude
In my coaching work with CEOs, it’s abundantly clear that the globalizing environment is acting as a crucible that either melts or refines the leader. Leaders are subjected to more speed, greater complexity, and limited resources—all with the same high expectations. Turbulence is the new normal and there’s no prospect of a spontaneous return to order.
Just look around; the familiar bastion of the conventional business cycle is gone.
If there’s no status quo ante, what’s the result? It’s really quite simple: More pressure to perform and more temptation to engage in ethical misconduct.
Leadership Litmus Test
The litmus test is the collision of stewardship and self-interest. Name a spectacular fall from grace that was about skills, knowledge, or experience? When leaders go down, they go down from the inside out. It’s a collapse of character we witness.
Consider the most recent float in the scandal parade—Mark Hurd, the recently ousted CEO of HP. This is a smart and talented person, but we need to be careful not to cling to a belief that leadership is mostly about IQ points and the charismatic arts, as if they will save us.
They never will—especially not in an ethically and morally interdependent global age.
The risks of ethical misconduct have become unknown and unknowable. With the connectivity of global supply chains, we are vulnerable to the effects of ethical misdeeds performed almost anywhere on earth. Pet food, peanuts, toothpaste, tires, Bernie Madoff, and the sub-prime lending crisis prove that we have entered an era in which a few bad actors can create a geo-ethical shock that incurs loss for millions of people.
If risk equates to probability multiplied by magnitude, we need to be more willing to take our leaders to task for their personal failings. Personal failings have not only public consequences, but unintended and far-reaching public consequences.
Dishonorable acts are now globally scalable in their effects.
Leadership is alluring.
It tempts you to use position for personal gain. The culminating test is to resist that temptation. But as we all observe, many succumb. It frequently begins as a flirtation of ego that ends in a vortex of corruption. The ambition to govern one’s fellow beings tends to view leadership as the pathway to a glittering world of personal reward. And so under pretense of leading, those of unbridled ambition seek it out and then let us down.
Hence, we observe a teeming gallery of venal characters auctioned to the highest bidder.
It continues to puzzle me that our public discourse on ethics tends to focus on the back end of achieving compliance and little on the front end of developing moral values. Nor do we talk enough about putting those who want to be our leaders under tougher scrutiny. And yet we live in a society in which we are led by many who have not demonstrated the ability to lead themselves.
So it’s more than antiquarian charm to say that leaders should be honest and morally excellent. Civil society ultimately depends on it as a functional necessity and the last line of defense.
As a practical matter, we need to vet candidates for leadership in every arena on character requirements more rigorously then we do.
We need to test their moral bearing capacity so that when stewardship and self-interest collide—and they certainly will—there’s a good chance the leader won’t buckle.
Empire of The Heart
Let’s not forget that leadership begins in the inner world. It’s about the empire of the heart. It is about meeting needs and reaching goals much larger than one’s personal desires or aspirations. To be fit to lead has nothing whatever to do with being rich and well-born, or even charismatic—dogmas from which we are still recovering. We need men and women of unflinching character to step out of the crisis, steeled for the journey ahead.
So as a leader, how can you step up and exercise your empire of the heart? And with the leaders around you, how can you hold them to standards that are above ethical reproach? How can you and those around you stand on strong ground and work for things of lasting value that positively impact you company, organization, or your city, state, or federal governments with integrity?
Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is president of management consulting firm, TRCLARK.
He helps in strategy, organizational transformation, and leadership development.
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