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Questionable Corporate Behaviour: Ethics in the Boardroom

By Jim Matheson, Principal, Flagship Ventures

One morning over coffee on a recent vacation, I opted to reach for the dayís business section, the first time I had done so in nearly a week of vacationing with my family in the historic hills of North Carolina and Virginia. After being instantly deluged with what have become all too familiar stories of questionable corporate behavior, I felt sadly disconnected from the hands-on research I had been doing on some of our Nationís greatest leaders, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and George C. Marshall, to name a few. While I am a relative newcomer to the corporate boardroom, the challenges and precepts of leadership are a familiar and important topic to me, and I found myself returning to my study of these characters and times with renewed vigor. It was now less for historical curiosity, and more as a well spring for inspiration and guidance for my role as a business leader.

Each company, and each business scenario, is unique. That said, there are some universal concepts which deserve reflection as we deal with what will likely be one of the major ethical challenges of this new century; the publicís rapidly eroding trust in the Chief Executives and the Board of Directors of todayís corporations. Like me, I suspect that you have the privilege of working with exceptional professionals working hard under a very challenging set of circumstances. But, as is often the case, a handful of hyperbolic events garner media attention and form popular opinion. Since perception, left unchecked, does in fact become reality, I believe it is incumbent on each of us to take a role in helping shift the momentum back towards a more trusting public by addressing the topic and challenge of corporate ethics in a straightforward, and proactive manner.

In the Naval Service, it is universally understood that a leader cannot delegate responsibility, regardless of the circumstances. Stories of ship Captains being relieved of command after running aground while they are fast asleep are frequent lore. Certainly, the prudent delegation of authority to accomplish a mission is a necessary component of any well functioning organization. While responsibility can be shared with the subordinate so entrusted with this authority, the ultimate responsibility, for both failure and success, lies with that unitís leader. This complex tension between the appropriate and effective delegation of authority and the sharing of responsibility have generated reams of material on leadership to be found in any book store, military training curriculum, or business school library.

While these various materials will highlight many dimensions and styles of successful leaders, the two ingredients that are absolutely necessary and uniformly present in great leaders are trustworthiness and courage. It is trust in a junior officerís training and judgment that allows the shipís Captain to turn over the helm to the young Officer of the Deck at midnight. In turn, trust is the element that forges the esprit de corps needed for young Marines to follow their leader into harmís way. There is also significant courage required in both of these actions.

Maybe these concepts sound fine to you in theory, and perhaps even in a military context, and you might argue that technical competence, managerial acumen and communications skills are more the fingerprint of todayís successful leaders. I would assert that business people with these abilities are plentiful; it is the seeming lack of trust and absence of courage that is most disturbing in todayís challenging business environment. How can we as corporate leaders put these ideals into practice on a regular basis? I would like to offer a few items that I have set as goals for myself:



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