Saturday, December 17, 2016

Squandering a Tradition of Ethical Leadership Instead of Protecting the Accrued Reputational Capital: The Case of Ratan Tata in India

In India, Ratan Tata was a revered figure, dubbed Mr. Clean, until the end of 2016, by which time serious allegations of financial improprieties had cut into the stellar reputations of both the man and the famous company founded by J.N. Tata, who had intentionally applied his Parsee ethic to the founding of India’s first steel company with a zero tolerance for corruption. Generally speaking, strategic ethical-leadership and even the resulting reputational capital depend on the persona of whoever is in charge of a company, and not even family linage can be counted on to perpetuate a culture of ethical leadership and protect a company’s accrued reputational capital.

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business: A Malignant Mentality of Mendacity, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Transforming Transformational Leadership: Foundations over Ideology

James Burn’s concept of transformational leadership is in essence a process in which “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”[1] This includes a moral commitment to develop followers, especially morally. To Burns, transformational leadership is therefore “an ethical, moral enterprise.”[2] I contend that the term transformation is not inherently ethical, and so it can apply to leadership in an amoral sense. Freed up from the limitations of being viewed primarily or even exclusively as moral, transformation can be seen to apply to leadership in at least two, much more direct—or central—ways than morally: as referring to a leader’s own transformation and to a leader’s vision being transformational.


Material from this essay has been incorporated in The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.






[1] James M. Burns, J. Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978): 20.


[2] Ken W. Parry and Sarah B. Proctor-Thomson, “Perceived Integrity of Transformational Leaders in Organizational Settings,” Journal of Business Ethics 35, no. 2 (January, 2002): 75.





Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the Difficulty of Ethical Leadership after a Breach: The Case of Wells Fargo’s CEO

On September 20, 2016, U.S. Senators questioning Wells Fargo’s CEO, John Stumpf in the Senate’s Banking Committee “seemed unmoved” by his “attempts to explain why more senior bank executives had not been tied to the widespread illegal sales activity.”[1] Bank employees may have opened as many as two million accounts in customers’ names without those customers’ knowledge.[2] Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, “said the illegal sales were a big driver of Wells Fargo’s success as one of the nation’s most profitable banks.”[3] She called on Stumpf to give back a large portion of his compensation, resign and be criminally investigated. I contend that giving back some of his compensation and resigning from the bank would have been necessary for the CEO get past the scandal in being able to be a credible and trustworthy ethical leader. That the bank’s board acted independently from its chairman, the CEO, a week later in taking back $41 million of his compensation and $19 million of the stock grants from Carrie Tolstedt, who had led the bank’s retail banking division (and cancelled any bonus for either official) does not lend the CEO any renewed credibility.[4] Rather, the action made the bank’s board members look like they were trying to do what was necessary, given the CEO’s underperformance during the Senate hearing.

“Have you returned one nickel of the money that you earned while this scandal was going on?” asked Warren.[5] Stumpf suggested that the board was considering whether he should also lose some of his compensation, which totaled more than $19 million in 2015.[6] He said the bank’s board was at the time considering whether he should lose some of his compensation, but in a classic conflict of interest, he himself occupied the board’s chairman position. In short, Stumpf admitted that he hadn’t yet been held personally accountable for the actions of his employees.[7]

Furthermore, despite the widespread unethical sales in the community banking unit, the executive who oversaw the retail bank, Carrie Tolstedt, was permitted to retire in July rather than be held accountable for the problems by being fired and having some compensation “clawed back,” Stumpf admitted. [8] Tolstedt received a retirement package that may amount to more than $100 million even though it is unlikely she was not aware of the fraud.[9] If she had been unaware, she clearly failed at her job and did not deserve $100 million.

More than 5,300 employees had been fired for the unethical sales since 2011, but they had been mostly lower-ranking workers, including many who say they felt pressured to bend the rules to meet the bank’s aggressive sales goals.[10] “Have you fired any senior management, the people who actually oversaw this fraud?” Sen. Warren asked the bank’s CEO. “No,” Stumpf replied.

Sen. Warren sized up the CEO thusly: “Your definition of accountability is to push this on your low-level employees. This is gutless leadership.”[11] It is unethical leadership—lacking basic integrity wherein “deed” matches “word.” Rather than putting his money where his mouth was, he offered platitudes, according to many of the senators, “about his willingness to take responsibility for the illegal sales while escaping any real consequences.”[12] To apologize for the actions of others is not sufficient, in other words, to buy back credibility and integrity. Frankly, the words are too easy without accompanying actions that involve real sacrifice by the leader as well as the bank.

Consistency in itself between word and deed is a very important aspect of integrity. A “divergence between words and deeds has profound costs as it renders managers untrustworthy and undermines their credibility and their ability to use their words to influence the actions of their subordinates.”[13] The application to leaders is straightforward: A divergence between word and deed also reduces a leader’s credibility and trustworthiness, and thus detracts from his ability to influence subordinates and the wider society to buy into his vision. Hence, nothing in Stumpf’s efforts at the U.S. Senate to “contain the damage to his bank’s reputation”[14] boosted his integrity, credibility and trustworthiness to his subordinates and at the societal level.

The main point to take away from the CEO’s attempt at strategic leadership before the U.S. Senate is how very difficult it is to go beyond platitudes of apologies to match them with inconvenient actions, such as firing senior-level managers, with “clawbacks,” and including the CEO himself even though he chairs the very board whose task it is to supervise him. Rather than exploiting a structural conflict of interest, a CEO/Chair must “take a hit” in order to have the trust and credibility both organizationally and in society to regain integrity. Such integrity is in turn required for effective ethical leadership to be practiced. Blaming others outside the inner circle of seniority in an organization and offering an easy apology too vague to say for certain whether the leader was part of the unethical practices do not suffice.


1. Michael Corkery, “Illegal Activity at Wells Fargo May Have Begun Earlier, Chief Says,” The New York Times, September 20, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Stacy Cowley, “Wells Fargo to Claw Back $41 Million of Chief’s Pay Over Scandal,” The New York Times, September 27, 2016.
5. Corkery, “Illegal Activity.”
6. Ibid.
7. Emily Peck, “Elizabeth Warren Hammers Wells Fargo CEO: ‘You Should Be Criminally Investigated,” The Huffington Post, September 20, 2016.
8. Corkery, “Illegal Activity.”
9.  Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Tony L. Simons, “Behavioral Integrity as a Critical Ingredient for Transformational Leadership," Journal of Organizational Change Management 12 No. 2 (1999): 89.
14. Nathan Bomey, “Four Things to Watch as Wells Fargo CEO Testifies,” USA Today, September 20, 2016, p. B1.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

On the Meaning and Value of Leadership: Formulating a Social Reality as a Vision

I submit that leadership is the formation of a vision and persuading other people to adopt it. From this standpoint, leadership is distinct from management—the latter taking the vision as a given and going from there to formulate strategy and implement it as policies. In short, a vision is open to leaders to change but closed to managers, who must take a vision as a given.

Material from this essay has been incorporated into The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Biblical Positive-Thinking Applied to Leadership

"I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”[1] This biblical verse captures the extraordinary optimism of Norman Vincent Peale. Belief, expectation, and faith—his pillars of the Christian religion—are internals that can move mountains and thus get results. This biblically-based recipe for positive thinking can be applied to leadership, which, after all, is results-oriented. Its desired objective is of course the realization of a vision. Simply put, if religion can be used to do better in a job as Peale insists,[2] this holds for the task of leading other people, which consists of formulating and selling a vision.

A change inside a leader can do wonders in moving a vision’s mountain toward being actualized. From the Bible, “(W)hosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.”[3] A vision may seem impossible but for such faith in a believer that eliminates any doubt. Peale is astonishing in his insistence that that faith as belief and expectation can deliver actual results, regardless of how high external obstacles are. “According to your faith be it unto you.”[4] In fact, “(i)f ye have faith . . . nothing shall be impossible unto you.”[5] A leader with such faith can count on his or her vision being realized. What counts is in the leader’s mind.[6] A leader who doubts and is more generally habituated to negative thinking must transform his or her thought pattern before the benefits of faith can be realized.
Undergirding his theory, Peale claims as a “well-defined and authentic principle” the assumption “that what the mind profoundly expects it tends to receive.”[7] Expect your vision, and that belief itself can move mountains such that your vision is realized by others and the empirical world is changed. Specifically, “(w)ith the creative force of belief you stimulate that particular gathering together of circumstances” which brings your vision to pass.[8] The power of belief can change the external world such that it is more favorable to the objective.
[The expanded essay is a chapter in Christianized Ethical Leadership]


1. Phil. 4:13. Cited from Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Touchstone, 2015), p. 3.

2. Norman Peale, Power of Positive Thinking, p. 48

3. Mk. 11:23. From Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 98.

4. Matt. 9:29. From Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 92.

5. Matt. 17:20. From Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 10

6. Here Peale cites Karl Menninger, who claimed that attitudes “are more important than facts.” Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 10.

7. Ibid., p. 94.

8. Ibid., p. 91.