Looking Out for No. 1

For bosses, ethical behavior isn't just about right and wrong.

The news is full of stories of bad behavior by leaders caught treating their institution's assets as their own. The logic is simple: Bosses contribute more than their subordinates. Therefore not only must they be paid more, but also they must be nurtured, some might even call it spoiled. Their valuable time must be protected at all costs.

Consider Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. On a flight from Washington to Saudi Arabia during the buildup to the first Iraq war, there was a line to get into the bathroom. Since the general's time was so valuable, he had a major keep a place in line for him. When the major finally worked his way to the front, he stepped aside for the busy general.

The boss's time must be protected from intrusion so he can remain free to think. When Disney executives attended a corporate retreat at Walt Disney World, they were given a tour of the park by bus. But the private time of the company's president, Michael Ovitz, was so valuable that he rode by himself in a limousine.

Bosses need more privacy and more work space. So they often get large private offices with windows only they can enjoy. When I was setting up the National Performance Review in the early 1990s, of course I chose the corner office with windows that looked onto the White House. The light and the view were an added benefit beyond the space and privacy. They raised my spirits and, no doubt, my productivity. And because I was "enlightened," I allowed subordinates to eat lunch around my conference table when it wasn't in use.

All these examples are logical: They met the needs of the organizations. Schwarzkopf could plan a war, Ovitz could think Mouse-worthy thoughts, and I could envision a reinvented government. But this approach causes problems. Schwarzkopf and Ovitz were damaging their reputations for common sense, and I was satisfying my own needs but not my subordinates'.

Ethics isn't always about choosing between right and wrong. More often, it's between two different rights or two different wrongs. In an enterprise, it's often about choosing between human needs and organizational ones.

Good government leaders are no different from good corporate leaders. When I was an engineer at Garrett-AiResearch Corp. in the 1960s, CEO Harry Wetzel waited in the same cafeteria line as everybody else, ate the same food and sat at the same picnic benches. The workers saw that Harry-as everyone called him-didn't think he was any better than they. Higher ranking, harder working and much better paid, yes, but a better person? Certainly not.

A more subtle conflict between human and organizational needs involves privacy. Bosses need privacy so they can counsel subordinates and hold meetings. My private office also made it easy for me to speak to my doctor or to my wife about family plans. But bosses have no more need or right to privacy than anybody else when it comes to health and family issues.

A simple formula for dealing with these challenges comes from Jim McConnell, former Navy Seabee commander and now head of construction for the huge Los Angeles Unified School District. He taught incoming Seabee commanders-bosses all:

  • You're there to serve, not to be served.
  • Command is a privilege in itself.
  • Don't make a big deal out of other privileges.
  • It's not your outfit, it's just in your trust.
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