5 Steps Leaders Can Take After Ethical Lapses

The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli, 1495 (Wikipedia - public domain)

I have to say, I had an internal debate about whether or not to write about this topic. It's not exactly an uplifting one, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered how there's a common thread here.

More importantly, I think there are valuable lessons here for how to find our way out of a difficult situation.

Interestingly, while we seem to be surrounded by corruption, fraud, deception, and swindle these days, it's nothing new.

"Corruption's not of modern date;
It hath been tried in every state."
— John Gay (1731)

What do we do when deception creeps into our lives?

Odds are, that's how it approaches, too: by creeping. Blatant falsehoods are easy to spot — especially these days, it seems…

But when someone seeks to deceive us, it happens by degrees, and often times it isn't until you've been duped that you feel the sting.

And then the sting is twofold: the deprivation of something of value (money, reputation, data, property) and the humiliation or knowledge that you were fooled.

Whether or not you can retrieve that thing of value which was stolen from you, the question becomes: what will you do now?

At this point in history, we're no strangers to what Lewis H. Lapham called "the American genius for the artful dodge":

"the sales pitch, the résumé, the cost overrun, the subprime loan, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the credit default swap, the derivative, the balloon mortgage, the missile gap, the housing bubble, the annual report, the Laffer curve, the Facebook page, the campaign promise, the 2003 invasion of Iraq…" — Lapham's Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2

Maybe we've been responsible for some of these ourselves. Or maybe we've been on the receiving end. If you've made a bad business deal, created a campaign that flopped, or hired someone who wasn't at all who they pretended to be in the interview process, odds are, someone deceived you.

But as a leader, everyone will be looking at you as you determine the resultant course of action.

Lies Noble and Servile

Before we get any further, I want to discuss the difference between what the Greeks called the "noble lie" and intentional, harmful deception.

In The Republic, Plato explains that by introducing a lie about humanity's beginnings — an origin myth, of sorts — it was more likely to bring harmony among the citizens if they thought they had a common bond. It was for the greater good of society.

It's not terribly different from how the emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write The Aeneid as an origin story for Rome. Yes, it was a series of stories and myths, but it was tied to long-held traditions and beliefs, and it legitimized his position. It made for a happy and satisfied public after years of conflict.

Contrast that with what Sherlock Holmes had to put up with from Scotland Yard inspectors who were constantly trying to make a name for themselves on the back of his ingenious work. In A Study in Scarlet, the suspect died in his cell and Holmes said that the inspectors would be beside themselves since they couldn't flaunt their victory with some "grand advertisement."

Good old Dr. Watson came to his friend's defense, saying “I don’t see that they had very much to do with his capture.”

And that's when Sherlock Holmes laid this truth bomb on us:

“What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. “The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done.”

Or, as we learn in that handbook of treachery and deceit, The Prince:

"The common people are always impressed by appearances and results." — Nicolo Machiavelli

Sherlock Holmes claimed that work was its own reward. But he also had something else up his sleeve: his own live-in biographer and chronicler, who sold his tales to the Strand magazine and thus served as a near-constant advertisement for Holmes's consulting practice.

These two instances encapsulate the difference in the white lie and the intentionally harmful lie. One is designed to further society; the other is designed to further the individual.

Think of it like this: lying to your kids about Santa Claus (whoops — spoiler alert!) helps them to believe in the magic of the holiday season, the act of giving, and the importance of good behavior. But lying while under oath is meant to protect your own skin.

Deception on a Global Scale

Recently, Sacha Baron Cohen made a speech about the harm that big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and others are doing, thanks in part to them furthering lies. It's an exceptional speech. I highly recommend watching it.

Among his quotes:

"Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march."

"All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine of history."

"The algorithms these companies depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged: stories that appeal to our baser instincts and trigger outrage and fear."

Of course, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is not retreating from his desire to have politicians spend money on Facebook while allowing them to promote lies, claiming that he supports freedom of speech as "a marketplace of ideas."

Baron Cohen rightly made the distinction:

"Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach."

We know that Facebook has intentionally deceived us, many times over. They've shared user data with untold numbers of vendors. They've run experiments on users without disclosing it. They falsified video statistics to encourage more media buying from brands.

They squashed any trust we might have had in them through years of half-hearted corporate apologies and crocodile tears. Lather, rise and repeat.

So that leaves us at an inflection point: now that we know Facebook has lied to us, again and again, what are we going to do about it?

From an institutional standpoint, they've become too big to self-regulate. Some sort of government oversight is needed at this point. Although how and by whom is the mystery.

At the brand level, it's going to be difficult to convince brands to move away, thanks to the myth of reach. If there are ethical brands out there, they need to step up and put Facebook and others on notice. Like P&G has.

For users, it's really a matter of being where their friends are. While Facebook is making data portability a reality, they still won't let you export your social graph — your friends. So sure, take all of your photos, but who are you going to share them with?

Things are still a bit murky here, but at least we're not completely blind to what's happening, as we were three, five, or ten years ago.

An Executive's Guide to Handling Deception

So when you're a leader and you're recovering from being deceived or how you've deceived others, everyone is looking to you for how you'll respond.

Here are steps that you can take to guide your organization through things.

1. Tell the truth: The first step is admitting what happened. Simply coming clean and owning the error will allow you to get things out in the open and talk frankly about what happened and why it happened.

2. Commit to avoiding a repeat: Now that you know what happened, you can steer clear of any temptation to get lured into a similar situation in the future. Which is why being clear and honest in step 1 is so important.

3. Avoid revenge: It's natural to want to strike back (yes, even if you're the perpetrator of the deception — this is why whistleblowers need protection). But it's not going to solve the problem and in fact, it might make the situation even worse. Move on.

4. Encourage honesty and communication: If you show that you value traits like transparency, inclusiveness, listening, respect, and clear, concise and candid communication, you'll build a more cohesive team, which in turn can help steer clear of deceptive situations.

5. Maintain your integrity: By taking the steps above, you'll show that you have the leadership capabilities to guide your team through even the most difficult situations. Communicate honestly. Push for ethical business practices.

Jonas Chuzzlewit was a little more cynical in his approach to business:

“Here’s the rule for bargains—‘Do other men, for they would do you.’ That’s the true business precept.” — Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

Instead, consider the Golden Rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” — Matthew. 7:12

About the artwork

I thought this week's image selection deserved a bit of context.

Botticelli made The Calumny of Apelles on the description of a painting by Apelles, a Greek painter of the Hellenistic period. Apelles' works have not survived, but Lucian recorded details of one in his On Calumny:

“On the right of it sits Midas with very large ears, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence.

She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents Envy.

There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.”

Present Tense

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

Evidently, Apple thinks that where you're standing determines how maps look. Russian forces annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, drawing international condemnation. The region is now shown as Russian territory on Apple Maps and its Weather app, when viewed from Russia. (BBC)

My take: This is a dangerous precedent when companies (ref. Nike, China) are subverting truth to win contracts or retain business.

The most gullible man in Cambridge has company. A Harvard law professor was suspended from his job, found himself temporarily homeless, and eventually spent $300,000 on legal bills. Now, six other men describe their encounters with this mysterious Frenchwoman: The Harvard Law Professor Scam Story Follow-Up. (The Cut).

My take: Even the most intelligent among us can fall victim to scam artists.

A new film, Dark Waters, depicts a Cincinnati attorney's ongoing efforts, beginning in the 1990s, to expose how the company DuPont continued to use toxic chemicals for decades after learning that they caused fatal diseases. A Chilling True Story of Corporate Indifference. (The Atlantic)

My take: In the spirit of The Insider, this is a look at the challenges of a whistleblower and egregious corporate malfeasance and lack of ethics. Timely.

For the Curious Mind

"I have gathered a posy of other men's flowers, and only the thread that binds them is mine own." – Michel de Montaigne

Want to know the secret to great leaders? They listen. But it takes effort and you have to make it a priority. (strategy+business)

Polymaths excel in multiple fields. Why are some people impossibly talented? And does their cross-disciplinary expertise offer any advantage to some of society's biggest issues? (BBC Worklife)

What people most fear is not difference, but a world in which nothing and nowhere is unique, in which every place is the same. The Horror of Sameness. (Aeon)

A Heart Replete with Thankfulness

"Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." – G.K. Chesterton

Since we were together at Thanksgiving, I had a chance to tell my parents how grateful I am for them. Grateful that we could be together and for all of the support they've shown me throughout my life.

It reminded me of the exercise in gratitude that Mister Rogers was fond of recommending: take just ten seconds to think of some of those people who have loved us and wanted what was best for us. Those who have encouraged us to become who we are.

Just ten seconds.

I'll watch the time.

No matter where they are — here or in heaven — imagine how pleased those people must be to know that you thought of them just now.

Recommended Reading/Listening

"Let me recommend this book." – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Grift is a show about con artists and the lives they ruin. Best-selling author and New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova takes us to the darker side of human nature and deceit. Ten stories about card sharks, cult leaders, art forgers, impostors and more. Why do we fall for them time and time again?

The Prince is a 16th-century political treatise by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. The general theme is that accepting that the aims of princes—such as glory and survival—can justify the use of immoral means to achieve those ends.

What else is influencing me? You can check out my sources of inspiration on my site or in the Timeless and Timely Flipboard magazine I curate.

The above may contain Amazon Affiliate links.

If you don’t subscribe, please consider signing up now: