Beyond Ethics

For many years, my focus was on ethics – particularly organizational ethics. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I majored in philosophy and minored in psychology.  My father thought it was imprudent to follow such a course of study, but I persisted.  As such, I studied many of history’s greatest ethicists.  I went on to law school, immersing myself in the study of law and justice.  My favorite class was…yes, legal ethics.  (Many of my law school colleagues were convinced something was seriously wrong with me at this point.)  I then decided to double down and became the first person to receive a Masters in Law from Georgetown University Law Center with a concentration in Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility.  I went on to found a consulting practice called “Ethics, Inc.” and then served as President of the Ethics Resource Center – the nation’s oldest, independent ethics center.  I even had a license plate for my car that read “Ethics 1.” It’s safe to say, ethics was a really big part of my personal and professional life!

And then…my central focus shifted.

Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, I still believe that ethical values and principles are important to success.  Indeed – indispensable.  But, over the course of my early career, ethical lapses that occurred in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations were often attributed (by their senior leadership) to the actions or decisions of a “rogue employee” or “bad person” in their midst.  Occasionally, this was the case, but often it wasn’t the whole story.

In helping many institutions in their quest to address the difficult ethical questions or situations that confronted them, I came to realize that many of their so-called “ethical challenges” were actually – at their root – issues of governance.  As a result, I and my wife Alessandra created in 2012 a new limited liability low-profit firm dedicated to the public good firm – Quantum Governance, L3C – that reflects a substantially broader governance and leadership focus.  (And yes, I also have a new license plate – which now reads “QNTM GOV.”)

“A fish rots from the head down.” It’s a cliché, yes, but it’s a cliché because it’s repeated so often; and it’s repeated so often because it’s so often true.  What I have continually observed over the years is a failure of genuine leadership at the Board or senior management level.  These failings frequently resulted in organizational cultures that ignored (or even encouraged) unethical or unprincipled decisions.  Likely causes were as varied as the organizations I came into contact with…a lack of clarity around tradition-bound leadership roles and responsibilities…too much authority in just a few individual’s hands…lip service by leaders to an ideal – and then actions to the contrary…the absence of proper boundaries…a lack of transparency and – yes – sometimes a systemic failure by leadership to set forth the ethical standards (and then clearly communicate, model and reinforce them) that are a vital part of a sustainable organization’s DNA.

To govern is to steer, direct and influence or persuade from a position of authority. It includes at the very least both the Board and the Management team, and it addresses both their formal (directional and policy setting) and their informal (influence and persuasion) forms of authority. Ultimately, governance deals with the legitimate distribution of authority throughout a system – whether a country, corporation or nonprofit.

As such, does governance include ethics? Of course! But it also includes so much more.  It entails a huge range of leadership, strategic, financial, policy and other issues which we will wrestle with in this blog.  We look forward to a robust dialogue with you as our posts unfold!

2 Comments

  1. Jack Marshall on July 24, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    That wasn’t so much as change of focus for you, Michael, but an extension of it. The importance of leadership to organizational ethics was a constant theme in your work at the Ethics Resource Center, yet so many organizations and their constituencies fail to grasp it.This is an important route to making society more ethical—perhaps the best route,

    I’m glad you’re on it.

  2. Steve Witherspoon on July 25, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Looking forward to reading more.

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