Peace and quiet

I was a senior in high school when the Challenger exploded.

I was in class at the time of the launch. I think it was chemistry. The teacher had rolled in a television set for all of us to watch. I remember how quiet the whole school got after the explosion. Not just my classroom; the whole school.

Allan McDonald never stayed quiet. McDonald was the engineer who refused to approve the Challenger launch. He knew that the O-rings at the booster rocket joints would likely fail in the unusually low temperatures of launch day. He spoke up before the launch but was overruled by his company’s executives.

Then, 12 days later, in a closed hearing of a presidential commission investigating the explosion, he spoke up again and corrected the record after a NASA official tried to suggest that McDonald had approved the launch. Embarrassed, his company demoted him in an effort to silence him. When the US Government heard of the demotion, it threatened to remove the company from all future NASA contracts. McDonald was promoted back and put in charge of redesigning the rocket joints.

After his retirement in 2001, he became an advocate of ethical decision-making to engineering students, to engineers and to managers, both in the private sector and in government agencies.

He never stayed quiet on the importance of doing the right thing.

McDonald passed away on Saturday.

He can rest in peace.

Breaking the rules

Today you might be sitting quietly by yourself and have this strange idea about doing something wrong. You’ll probably dismiss the idea quickly.

Or an acquaintance might suggest that you do something wrong. You’ll probably politely decline.

Or your boss might ask you to do something wrong. That will be uncomfortable.

Or the law might ask you to do something wrong.

Today in 1955, the law asked James. F. Blake to use his police powers as a bus driver to sign a warrant for the arrest of Rosa Park after she refused to give up her seat to a white man. To be fair, Blake did not hesitate. Twelve years earlier, Blake had made Parks disembark after she entered his bus from the front door and paid her fare; he wanted her to enter from the back door. But not all bus drivers agreed with the law. What were they supposed to do? What would you have done?

Today we have laws that separate children from their parents at border crossings. We have laws that criminalize sharing our food with the homeless. Perhaps you have rules in your office that are unfair.

Will you enforce them?

A greater honor

A golfer loses the U.S. Open after assessing himself a one-stroke penalty.

A runner loses a cross-country race on purpose after noticing that the leader had mistakenly stopped before the finish line.

A lacrosse team withdraws from a tournament to make room for a more deserving team.

In countless examples, not just in sports but in life, people forgo an honor to preserve a greater one.

Care not what others think

“I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do. That is character!”

Theodore Roosevelt

Every leader is called to be an antiracist, today more than ever.

Taking a stand will expose us to attacks and criticism. We may damage a relationship with a relative, lose a friend, or be excluded at work.

Let us not care about it. Our character is at stake, and that of every nation on Earth.

Whatever you are, be a good one.

Plato gave this advice in The Republic (using different words).

William Makepeace Thackeray is believed to have coined the phrase in the 1850s (as reported in Laurence Hutton’s memoir).

The quote was eventually, and probably wrongly, attributed to Abraham Lincoln for the first time in 1946, 81 years after his death (Lincoln was born on this day in 1809)

The theme was delivered beautifully by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 speech “What is Your Life’s Blueprint” (in the excerpt better known as “The Street Sweeper”).

On the surface, this quote seems to exhort us to simply be good at our craft, to hone the skills required of our job. Of course, it is much more than that. Those words urge us to forge our character and to seek justice.

Some would say we should seek justice for all mankind. I find it a tall order. I think it would suffice if all of us were just farmers and street sweepers, just children and parents, just employees and bosses.

Let us be just men and women.

On patience and kindness

I have little patience for complaining.

Generally, I find that people complain too much and too loudly about things they should simply accept or quietly work to change.

This character trait makes me ill-suited for a part of my job as an ethics & compliance officer, the part where I receive allegations of wrongdoing.

When I feel my blood starting to boil (i.e. when I feel the urge to complain), I bring to mind the following quotes:

Patience is not how long you can wait but how well you behave while you wait.

– Timber Hawkeye

Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness.

– Seneca

This allows me to set my pain aside and seek to understand and alleviate another’s pain.

What hurtful words reveal

Perhaps today someone at work will say something that will hurt you, undeservedly. If not today, that day will come.

The ethical leader will remember that the words themselves have no power other than that which we ascribe to them.

Such hurtful words reveal the speaker’s pain, not the target’s true character. Understanding this will allow us to quickly let go of the anger that might naturally arise.

And let go we must, so that no more victims are made.

Conflicting offer

Most conflict of interests (COI) policies require employees to disclose ownership in another business.

However, how do we handle ownership by a candidate if we learn about it after extending an offer but before they accept it?

We need to answer the following questions (and perhaps a few more):

  • Was it reasonable for the candidate not to disclose her ownership before an offer was made?
  • Should the candidate have known about our COI policy?
  • Does the ownership actually create a conflict of even the appearance thereof?
  • Can we modify our offer based on this newly discovered ownership (by adding conditions that would resolve the conflict)? Should we?
  • Can the conflict be mitigated if our offer is accepted as-is? If not, can we rescind our offer based on this newly discovered conflict? Should we?
  • What message do we want to send the candidate about our culture of compliance?

This situation offers a great opportunity to reflect on the character and values of the candidate – and of our organization.