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Plugging the Integrity Leak: Business Ethics and Lessons from the Mahabharata

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"Watch out when you tell yourself that you deserve! Watch out!" Mr. Patrick Kuhse's voice thundered through the auditorium at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management on day two of an action-packed orientation program for the MBA Class of '07. I felt the earnestness and the gravity come through Mr. Patrick's warning. The mood in the room had shifted, from a light-hearted conversation about an easy-going college kid to one about a super-ambitious and reckless college graduate who was ready to forgo everything to reach the echelons of fame and fortune. Mr. Patrick, an international consultant on business ethics, was giving us a concise yet profound glimpse into a momentous phase of his own life that set the course towards his becoming one of the most successful stockbrokers, only to be arrested by the Interpol and spend four years in rigorous imprisonment, followed immediately by a divorce and loss of custody of his two kids. After that he went on to become an acclaimed speaker on ethical behavior and an ethics consultant for multinational corporations and educational institutions.

Fascinated by his story and the sheer honesty and vulnerability he showed in opening up his life, I approached Mr. Patrick after the talk to express my heartfelt gratitude. In course of our conversation, I asked him a question that came to me mid-way during his talk: "Patrick, here I am on day two of my two-year journey through business school. I hear a mind-blowing story on ethical compromise. But how am I supposed to remember this story, when for the next two years I am going to be bombarded unreservedly about profit maximization and improving the bottom-line in all my classes?" A bunch of my new classmates who were standing beside me, waiting impatiently to talk with Mr. Patrick, stared at me in a way that made me feel naïve and idealistic. Perhaps, I was naïve and idealistic. There seemed to be a sense of "Be practical, mister. This is a business school. Profit maximization is primary." Definitely true, and that is why I came here. Mr. Patrick seemed to appreciate the question and once again, staying loyal to his candidness, stated that it is definitely a glaring weakness in our system for training leaders and that unless we plug the hole at the grassroots level, we will see more cases of irresponsible behavior come to foreground in the future -- even bigger than what we just heard. Although I appreciated his answer, I couldn't but help think that my question was indeed naïve and presumptuous -- that humans are definitely more responsible than I thought.

Almost five years later, as I reflect on my question, I realize that I did undervalue my own concerns and appreciate Mr. Patrick's insight even more. Sitting in the midst of another crisis -- this time created by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- and witnessing the drama around it almost makes Mr. Patrick sound like a doomsayer. But not without sound reasoning. The unfolding of the entire oil spill episode has brought to the forefront a trail of irresponsible acts that BP has engaged in, not unknowingly. And the schemes to arrest the flow are being put into place without clearly assessing the long-term effects they will have on the ecology. The scheme to contain the spill with a dome has failed, and among the next steps, one idea being seriously considered is to shoot garbage into the gaping hole to plug the gusher. The remedies seem as irresponsible as the actions or the lack of those that led to the oil spill in the first place. Statisticians from BP quote the strength of the probability models that predict such leaks. According to them, the probability of such leaks happening was one in ten million rigs. That sounds very promising, sure enough, but the probability models do a poor job of predicting the extent of the damage that will be caused if a leak does happen.

In 2006, the EPA and Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into two massive BP oil leaks in Alaska caused by corroded pipelines. One of the leaks spewed almost 200,000 gallons onto the tundra, and investigations revealed that BP had reported ignored warnings. It finally came to a $50 million settlement but what could not be repaired, it seems, was a certain mindset. As one EPA official put it, for BP it was a financial decision: should they pay a fine of $50 million or spend a lot more correcting flaws in their operations? The answer was obvious, at least to the top management of BP. This irresponsibility did not receive much publicity and was dexterously shoved under the carpet through numerous pay-offs until the current oil spill, being termed as probably the biggest man-made natural disaster yet, surfaced. Even more frustrating is the undertone to BP CEO Mr. Tony Hayward's response to this crisis. Mr. Hayward impressed several lawmakers with his earnestness about stopping the leak, but he also seemed intent on deflecting questions about responsibility. BP seeks to leverage every penny of the $15.9 million it spent lobbying last year, and most of all it is trying its best to contain penalties. BP's history shows that it will succeed at that, and that leaves the larger questions still unanswered: how can our corporate leaders be made more responsible? This is not to state that our leaders are twisted right from the onset. In fact, my personal experience interacting with business leaders is that many of them are wonderful and noble individuals. But it is a fact that they have to operate in a system that is fueled by collective greed and that unconsciously brings out irresponsible behavior.

I heard a story in my early childhood that has only grown on me through my experience in corporate America. The story comes from the Mahabharata (literally translated as "The History of Greater India"), one of the classics from India's ancient religious texts, the Vedas. The setting: the best school of martial arts and military training, headed by a veteran archer and teacher named Dronacharya. The school trained the best kings and princes in military warfare and defense, the most famous of all of them being Arjuna, the main character of the timeless eastern classic, the Bhagavad Gita. Dronacharya's big lessons at school before he taught any of the various arts of fighting revolved around teaching responsible behavior even in the midst of the most provoking and enticing situations, as well as control over base urges of unconscious exploitation. He had creative and difficult tests that students had to pass, and he taught them the arts of military warfare only in proportion to their sense of responsible behavior. One quality that he consistently tested them on was situational compromise of truth. What is so striking to me in this story is the emphasis on character development and integrity before skills are bestowed. A responsible training system not just focuses on how skilled the students are but goes to great extent to ensure that the skills are grounded in well-developed character and integrity.

Developing character and integrity requires time and investment. As trivial as it may sound, and as negligible as the number of accolades it receives in comparison to training in leadership skills may be, character development forms the basis of any leadership program. It is exactly like laying a strong foundation before a structure is erected. The foundation forms the basis of the entire structure. We can erect a most amazing structure, but if the foundation is weak, it is only a matter of time before a minor tremor can cause the structure to completely collapse, causing severe damage to life and property. A good engineer spends ample time designing the foundation for the worst possible threat. And it is usually the main structure that gets the glories. No one looks at a nice structure and admires the foundation. And yet, the structure cannot exist and be fortified without a strong foundation.

We can go to great extent to ensure ethical following of roles and responsibilities, but if the individual's intention is to cheat the system, an intelligent individual boosted by the wide spectrum of knowledge and skills provided by our educational system can find numerous holes to exploit. We can take pride in the fact that the American legal system has brought to books many individuals in positions of power who have compromised on responsibility -- but not before their actions caused severe and sometimes irreparable damage to individuals, society, and the environment at large. After all, prevention is better than cure.

What this will take, as Mr. Patrick so articulately put it in his answer to my question, and as the story from the Mahabharata illustrates, is investment in character development at grass roots level, i.e., all the education and training institutions. The practical implementation of such a long-term solution is undoubtedly challenging given the current economic and social system that we feed our younger generation into, but the change can start small. The important thing is to start. The broader details are important and will unfold in time, but not without the strong and earnest desire to implement such a system, which must be at the forefront in the mind of our nation's administrative machinery. Without this essential training in character development, we will still produce great corporations and powerful leaders, but we will still face equally devastating actions that will have widespread repercussions on the social and ecological fabric of this country, not to mention the world at large. The problem goes beyond the BP rig leak, and no ethical systems or probability models are foolproof to prevent such crises from happening again and again purely due to lack of integrity from our leaders and decision makers.

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