Integrity and Trust in 2014

The story is told that Theodore Roosevelt was searching for lost cattle one day when he came upon some of his ranch hands about to brand some unbranded strays. Roosevelt pointed out that they weren’t on his own ranchland; they were on his neighbor’s. The rule was that the unbranded stray cattle had to be on your land for you to brand them as yours—without that rule, neighbors would steal from each other. The ranch hands probably replied that no one would know the difference and that they had worked hard enough to find these strays; they wanted to get the branding done and call it a day. They pulled the “TR” brands from the fire and were poised to mark the cows as Roosevelt’s. But Roosevelt fired the ranch hands on the spot. He said, “Anybody who would steal for me would steal from me.” For Roosevelt (and most of us), the ability to trust someone is closely knitted to his or her integrity, as demonstrated in words and actions.

The year, 2013, served up some amazing examples of what Roosevelt worried about: the LIBOR scandal, SAC Capital Advisors and insider trading, Serge Dassault and vote buying, Lance Armstrong and the doping scandal, and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, for example. These seem like life imitating art: aspects of these cases are reflected in The Wolf of Wall Street, a new movie based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, who founded a high-pressure brokerage firm in the 1980s and was eventually sent to jail. It’s a story of villainy, brutality, theft, betrayal, fraud, and exploitation, a tragic illustration of how businesses and their leaders can go way way off track. As Roosevelt might say, a great deal of stealing went on, both for and from. (I agree with critic, Joe Morgenstern, that, “I couldn’t wait for the hollow spectacle to end.” It is a memorable tragedy submerged beneath three hours of Martin Scorsese’s overwhelmingly graphic display, meant to titillate, not instruct.)

Most people recoil from the thought of working in Jordan Belfort’s kind of environment. We want to be proud of our place of work. Fortunately, the business world offers a host of counterexamples, companies that talk openly about the importance of ethical behavior and then walk the talk. You can find examples of these companies in published lists of trustworthy companies at Forbes/Audit Integrity, Ethisphere, and at Trust Across America (TAA). Two companies led by Darden alums rank in the top ten in the latest TAA listing: Tom Watjen (D’81) is the CEO of Unum Group; John Strangfeld (D’77) is the CEO of Prudential Financial. And many other Darden alums create trustworthy environments, be they leaders of a company, a division, or a small team. Warren Buffett annually reminds employees at Berkshire Hathaway how vitally important are ethics and integrity in all they do. He wrote, “We can afford to lose money. We can afford to lose a lot of money. But we cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation. Make sure everything you do can be reported on the front page of your local newspaper written by an unfriendly, but intelligent reporter.”

Implications for Business Schools

Schools have a role in producing a business society of our aspirations, mainly through the caliber of people they graduate. A great education should consist of growth in knowledge, skills, and character. Some people would suppose that b-school should just be about knowledge and skills. Wrong. To build a society of trust and integrity, we must talk openly about values and expectations. Unless we want a society of Jordan Belforts, we should aim to shape the character of our students. Education is manifestly a moral activity. But in Excellence without a Soul, Harry R. Lewis, a former Dean of Harvard College, wrote that universities have drifted into a rather technocratic and narrow sense of mission:

… you will see plenty of talk about the world’s problems, about the pursuit of knowledge, about hard work and success. Rarely will you hear more than bromides about personal strength, integrity, kindness, cooperation, compassion, and how to leave the world a better place than you found it. The greater the university, the more intent it is on competitive success in the marketplace of faculty, students, and research money. And the less likely it is to talk seriously to students about their development into people of good character who will know that they owe something to society for the privileged education they have received. (Page xiv).

The alternative is to give real emphasis to character development, a strengthening of attributes such as integrity, empathy, work ethic, social awareness, and emotional intelligence. This emphasis should be at the core, not the periphery of the curriculum. And it should offer a compelling view of how faculty and staff members should engage with students. I was granted a vision of this by one of my own mentors in graduate school, Professor C. Roland Christensen. He wrote,

I believe that teaching is a moral act. I believe that what my students become is as important as what they learn. The endpoint of teaching is as much human as intellectual growth. Where qualities of persona are as central as qualities of mind—as is true in all professional education—we must engage the whole being of students so that they become open and receptive to multiple levels of understanding. And we must engage our whole selves as well. I teach not only what I know, but what I am. (“Every Student Teaches,” pgs. 116-117.)

Ultimately, schools should model what it means to be a community of trust and integrity. For better or worse, schools serve as powerful examples for their students. Simply by modeling positive attributes, they help to build graduates of whom they can be proud.

Our Approach at Darden

Every school is a work in progress. To be a community of integrity is not a once-and-done decision, but is the result of thousands of choices made every day. I don’t claim that everyone at Darden makes these choices perfectly. But it seems easy for us to talk openly about character, integrity and trust. We have a student-run Honor Code that the faculty respect. We offer a required and graded course on Business Ethics, along with numerous electives. We have an expectation that the faculty will not shrink from exploring ethical dilemmas no matter what one’s field of teaching might be. Our centers and faculty in business ethics are thought-leaders in scholarship and curriculum development. We share expectations that create a community of trust. The Darden Mission Statement commits us to “developing and inspiring responsible leaders.” Darden’s Statement of Norms says that “We act with integrity: we do what we say.” The Board of Visitors of the University endorsed the University Code of Ethics. It states that, “We do not condone dishonesty in any form by anyone.”

The Darden Community rallies behind the values embedded in the Mission, Norms, and Code for at least three reasons:

  • We want to create a sustainable legacy for Darden. To incorporate ethics into our workplace mindset is to think about the kind of community that we would like to live in, and that succeeding generations will inherit.

  • Ethical behavior builds trust and dividends of trust are valuable.The foremost dividend is an unimpeachable reputation. Equally important, ethics and trust build strong teams and strong leadership. Stronger teams and leaders result in more agile and creative responses to problems. Ethical behavior contributes to the strength of teams and leadership by aligning employees around shared values, and building confidence and loyalty.

  • Darden can’t afford the costs of doing otherwise. We cannot afford to lose one shred of our reputation; we cannot afford to lose one talented member of our community, applicant, or corporate partner over an ethical lapse; and we cannot afford to lose our self-confidence and self-respect.

Annually at the start of the calendar year, I ask the faculty, staff, and students to reaffirm our vision and our commitment to walk the talk—and I do so again, here in January, 2014. We expect each other to manage, study, lead, and work with integrity. This entails three commitments:

First, at a personal level, make a commitment to go the extra mile for what’s right.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”    If we want a community of trust and integrity, we must live that vision.

Second, encourage others around you to do what’s right. We are not an “anything goes” community. We have mutual expectations for exemplary behavior. No number of messages from the Dean can match the impact of peer expectations. A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable link. Help those who may be headed in the wrong direction. Speak up for our values.

Third, if you see something, say something. Silence implies consent. The UVA Honor System provides representatives with whom students and professors can share their concerns on a confidential basis. Similarly, faculty and staff members can share concerns with senior leaders, me, Brad Holland, University Ombudsman (434- 924-7819, ombuds@virginia.edu), and/or Barbara Deily, Chief Audit Executive of the University (434-924-4110, deily@virginia.edu). The mark of a good organization is not that it never has ethical lapses, but rather what it does about them. At Darden we must get the facts and take appropriate action as fast as possible.

Conclusion

A visitor at one of Darden’s admissions events once challenged me: “Dean you talk and blog so much about integrity…does Darden have an ethics problem?” I replied, “I like to think that we don’t have an ethics problem precisely because we do talk and blog about integrity.” Perhaps something I said resonated with him: he applied, was admitted, graduated, and now spreads the word about Darden. High-performance organizations take integrity seriously—they talk about it regularly, often starting with the CEO. It is never too early or late to talk about integrity. People get distracted, confused, or forgetful. We can all use conversational reminders about what is important. Darden is, and aspires to remain, a high-performance organization; for us, striving to be a community of integrity is not an afterthought; it is where that high performance starts from.

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