Joseph L Badaracco’s article “The Discipline of Building Character” discusses three cases in the workplace setting when the manager’s are called upon to take difficult decisions. The decisions that they take involves something beyond the moral dilemmas which makes the decision making difficult. They are faced with two right courses of actions out of which they must decide on one. In making these decisions, they are called upon to minimize or eliminate conflicts with their values or character, with the organization and with the society. In other words, the moments of the decision making are identified as ‘defining moments’ as they are based on the manager’s inherent character.
In the three cases, the choices faced by Steve Lewis, Peter Adario, and Eduoard Sakiz are actually the choices not between the right and the wrong but between right and right. Their choices would pass the generalization test if it can be shown that their choices are rational. The decisions they made have a consistent rationale basis. In other words, those in a similar position and circumstances should act in a similar manner. The rationality may not be sufficient but is certainly a necessary condition in the choices they make. In case of all the three managers except perhaps Adario, it is noticed that they translated their personal values into calculated action.
In case of Steve Lewis, an African American working as a junior analyst in a prestigious New York Investment bank, personal identity is important. As a diligent employee who loves his job he believes in his personal merit. He is offered to go to a presentation represented primarily by white males. He is faced with the dilemma whether or not to participate in a presentation in St Louis. The sole reason in his claim to participation is his race, not competence. If he attends, he would have greater opportunities, and he would be helping the company. He does not want to attend because he does not want to appear as an African-American potted plant. He finds his attendance discriminatory and the whole thing ‘phony’. Lewis wanted to earn his position. He doesn’t want to be used as a token black. Finally, he decides to attend and use the short time allotted to him to make his presentation in proving his worth for the position. On balance, Lewis is pleased with his action and relieved that he had chosen the right course. This decision passes the test of generalization. It would have been irrational to throw away the chance to attend the presentation because it did not comply with personal values. “We have all seen managers who unthinkingly throw themselves into a deeply felt personal cause and suffer serious personal and career setbacks” (Badaracco, p.118).
The second case is that of Peter Adario, head of the marketing department of Sayer Micro World. He is married and has three children. He is a successful businessman who supervises 50 people under him. He hires Kathryn McNeil, a single mother with a six year old son. Lisa Walters also works under him. A conflict develops between Lisa Walters and Kathryn McNeil. Walters wants to fire McNeil for falling behind the schedule and Adario has to take the final decision. However, Adario doesn’t take a decision as he is in a dilemma. He believes in creating a family-friendly work place and takes this situation as an opportunity to do something. He plans to save McNeil’s job and arranges to meet with Walters and McNeil to tell them to settle an arrangement. However, Walters has already met senior managers ignoring the chain of command with the request to fire McNeil. McNeil is fired before Adario can intervene. Adario has clearly made some mistakes. He overestimated the role of good intentions and lofty ethical sentiments in defining moments. He also underestimated the role of management skill and effort, as well as shrewdness and street smarts.
Adario appears to fail in the generalization test. His action of “inaction” is not rational. Adario’s intentions are ethical but his action cannot be said to be a law giving maxim on which every rational person would act accordingly as he did. He dithered but a smart and practical manager would have taken a quick action consistent with their inner values. Had Adario held a meeting with McNeil and Walters and come out with a solution as he had originally planned his action might have been both ethical and rational. The reason for Adario’s action should be consistent with the assumption that everyone will act in the same way, provided they have the same reason. In other words, everyone who values the family-friendly work place would act the way Adario did. But Adario did not act. Had he acted as he thought he would, his action would have passed the test of generalization because everyone who held a similar value would have acted in the same manner.
The Utilitarian principle is based on the idea that there is a single ultimate aim or end or goal called utility which can be identified as pleasure or happiness. Some ends can be instrumentally good such as a good job or a high salary but pleasure and happiness are ultimately and inherently good. Rationality is meant to help us decide what is inherently good for us. In this case, happiness for Adario could have been the decision to retain McNeil without letting the work hamper in the organization. However, he was in for a disappointment because he did not act with confidence and did not act in time. He did not act according to the demands of the organizational setting, where a leader needs to act like a fox or a lion depending on the situation so that the maximum number of stakeholders is happy.
It is not important that Adario has virtuous intent rather it is important that his virtuous intents are translated in action. To be successful he should have negotiated his ethical vision with other employers and stake holders. Then he might have possibly brought about 'happiness', or 'human flourishing’, the defining characteristics of virtue.
The third case is that of Edouard Sakiz, CEO of Roussel-Uclaf, the pharmaceutical company associated with developing the abortion pill, RU 486. The final decision on introducing the drug rested with Sakiz. He is faced with the dilemma on whether to distribute the pill or not distribute it. There are several advantages of distribution. It would contribute to safe abortions. The medical fraternity favoured it. It would be beneficial to the target consumers in the third world nations, and it would nurture long term relationship with the French government lab. However, a majority of the shareholders were not in favour distribution. The company faced vehement criticism from the anti-abortion group for developing this pill and now they resisted its distribution. In addition, the pill would have low profitability. Nonetheless, Sakiz strongly identified with the value proposition inherent in safe abortions. Unsafe abortions in third world countries killed pregnant women. Sakiz announced publicly that the company was suspending the distribution of drug because the pressure from the anti-abortion group was mounting by the day. The decision attracted surprise and anger from the drug supporters. The French minister of health threatened that in case the company was not interested in the distribution of the drug, the government would transfer the patent of the drug to a company that was willing to comply with the government instructions. Eventually Roussel Uclaf decided to distribute the drug. In this case, the action of Sakiz was rational, pragmatic and in compliance with his core values. He could claim that his decision was dictated by pressure from anti-abortion groups. He could test the commitment of his potential supporters. He made it appear that the French government had taken the decision and thereby escaped the criticism and resistance from anti-abortion groups. Sakiz did not say that the drug is immoral and he also did not say that the company was going to abandon the drug. The ultimate responsibility for RU 486 in the market now lay with the government and the company was relieved of the moral burden.
In this case, the decision that Sakiz takes passes the generalization test. His action is rational and any smart manager would like to emulate his strategy. His aim is bring about a difference in the lives of pregnant women going for the option of abortion, make his company profitable and have his way without appearing to antagonise any stakeholder. Since he has achieved these ends, his action passes the utilitarian test. His decision highlights the virtuous qualities of leadership, loyalty to the company, concern for women who are the victims of unsafe abortion.
According to Badaracc, our characters are formed during the defining moments. The decision we take and the action we perform shape our identities – personal and professional. Integrity, according to Hooker, is the core of who we are and the consistency in our behaviour under different circumstances. In other words, the leaders have an integrated character. They would find solutions to problems without compromising with their ethical values. Since the organizations have their unique culture and they are as good as their leadership tradition, organizations too can exhibit the qualities of character, integrity and virtue.
Badaracco, Joseph L. The Discipline of Building Character. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1998, pp.115-124