corruption words pic



“The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.”


Kurt Cobain





I just had a thoughtful discussion <debate> the other night with a good friend about morals and ethics in the workplace. The debate centered on ‘can you actually teach ethical behavior to adults/employees … let alone leaders in an organization.’



To be clear.


I do not believe you can.


Mostly because I believe by adulthood everyone knows what is morally right or wrong.

<here is the article I wrote which shows research on how people are born with a moral compass: >




An organization can define some behavioral guard rails to clarify what an organization defines as ‘acceptable within their defined moral compass’ but I do not believe it can be taught.



And while I see a lot of value in aligning a business organization on a set of ‘preferred behavior actions’ I tend to believe our perceptions with regard to what happens in business , morally & ethically, is based on the exceptions rather than ongoing accepted behavior patterns.


Why exceptions?




Exceptions shake the foundation of trust as well as ‘what I should do’ behavior.

corruption def integrity

And nowhere is this exception concept more vivid than in what President Bartlet said once on the TV show West Wing:

Corruptio optimi pessima”


Latin translated as “corruption of the best is the worst.”


<I am fairly sure it can be found in David Hume’s “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” written in 1741>



And while I am on a Latin roll … that person ultimately becomes the latro thesauri … or the thief of the treasure.  <as a corollary … custos thesauri  is ‘the keeper, or guardian, of the treasure’ and I will get back to that>.



I bring up corruption because in business … when discussing and ‘teaching’ ethics and moral compass in business … we have a tendency to mainly seek to clarify the littler things.


Lying by omission, white lies, partial truth … crap like that.


Maybe even copying personal things on the business copier or bringing post it notes home.


I call these the ‘gray areas of acceptable ethical behavior’. Not gray because of what is right or wrong but rather that context creates situational blurriness with regard to importance.




A lie is a lie.



Except when it’s not.


Moral clarity is often found in shades of gray … particularly in business organizations.

I can have the highest integrity and yet decide to make a lie of omission knowing that the end product will be the best <and ethically & morally grounded> and reached more efficiently or in a more timely fashion.


integrity values behaviors

Those are the kind of choices business people make each and every day.


As for the post it notes?




I have inadvertently brought gobs of those home with me. But I also like to work at home … thinking … and doing stuff outside of traditional business hours.

Is that how I justify it?


Does that make me ethically challenged or morally lost?


And is it even worth an organization fretting over?


All of that leads me to corruption.


And while corruption can be some huge headline making vivid demonstration of greed type behavior it is much more often a sneaky insidious type of behavior.


I often think of corruption as some subtle pressure to take views or positions with ‘financial reward they will bring you’ as the objective.


change danger done it this waySubtle is … well … sneaky. Sneaky in the sense it is purposeful and yet most people are often not even aware of the influence.


Want an example?


Listen closely when someone says ’our business is to win.’


Nowhere in there is ‘make money’ or ‘be profitable’ instead they seek to influence behavior through attitude.


Winning becomes the end all be all.

Uh oh.


But how to win?


And therein lies the final outcome … ‘we got our priorities a little out of order.’


Business morals & ethics is not an easy discussion.

It often gets guided by behavior discussions and not attitude discussions.


It often gets trapped in philosophical debates like trying to reason through the age-old philosophical tension between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’.


We get stuck on discussing … is anything absolutely right or absolutely wrong … and if so how would I know it?


It was Immanuel Kant who suggested that moral laws are not true <or absolute>.moral compass contextualmap

And that Truth is a matter of the way the world is … while morality is a matter of the way the world ought to be.


Susan Neimann suggests the distinction between is and ought is the most important one we ever draw.


If morality is never a fact and living rightly is not something of self-interest than how do we draw a line on what is moral clarity?


All that said.


Corruption is corruption.


And corruption is actually one place in which we can place at least some derivatives of black & white <if not the grays that reside next to true black & white>.


But, sadly, it seems most discussions of morality are being dominated by what I call “moral entrepreneurs.”


These are consultants who are in the business of peddling simplistic ideas about ‘good’ and ‘evil’.


True moral judgments are not simplistic.

True moral judgments, based on values and convictions, are increasingly rare.


And yet, in our interest to make things simplistic, we become more and more committed to ‘evidence based’ judgments rather than ‘good or just’ judgments. And when we do that the entire ‘values’ or ‘moral compass’ discussion ends up revolving around “doing the right things” <behavior> stuff and not “thinking the right way” <attitudinal> type stuff.


The exception?


Well. This means pretty much only the extreme or exotic situations seem to deserve our moral condemnation.


Business has created a kind of distance between ourselves and various moral problems and behavior … focusing on behavior as some sort of guide to ‘being a better person.’


What everyone seems to be missing is that by focusing on behavior we have avoided the higher ground and therefore inhibits society’s ability to develop, and agree on, the ideals we should live by.


We end up inventing values in a similar way to businesses that employ public relations consultants to magically create some mission statement.


In addition.


There is also a really odd generational thing happening.


The myth of youth being an amoral generation has been around for a long time.

Our grandparents talked about how our parents were morally adrift, and their parents did the same of them. Every generation is morally worse than the previous. And then they grow up.



Today’s world is spotted with laring examples of a morally corrupt leadership <older generation>.


Each generation is pointing at the other.


And we are avoiding the real issue.


Where is our corruption compass <where it always has been … we still have t> and why does there appear to be actual behaviors occurring which doesn’t align corruption prostitutionwith the moral compass we have?



I tend to believe the larger issue is moral relativism, i.e., “there are no absolutes, it depends on the situation.”


Or maybe even ‘moral individualism’ in that everyone believes  morals are objectively true and there is more than one right answer which then means everyone has to <gets to> decide for themselves.


<compounded by the fact you can’t tell others what to think>





It’s all crap.


If our beliefs are compromised and corrupted each and every day in the name of ‘winning’ in business it will only continue to get worse.


It is crap because we know it is in our heart of hearts.


It feels like everything that we inherently think really matters is being lost, little by little, every day as we compete with one another over nearly everything.


You know.


You would think morality, simple day to day morality, would be easy.

But it’s not.


It is not as easy as setting up a menu of things you can do and things you cannot do. That is simply a list and has no soul.

And in doing so you force on an ongoing battle of moral ambiguity which inevitably leads to structural corruption.




Beyond businesses … even cultures have a moral compass.


Yet, it was because I did some research that I began to realize that each generation struggles to identify its moral ‘north star.’


In other words … what we worry about today <the greed, the lying, the etc. are simply trappings of an ongoing discussion over moral compass>.


That may seem counter intuitive if you assume everyone has this compass … but it is just human nature.

moral crossraods

Society, culture & civilization, as well as events and experiences, tugs at individual morality challenging it as it tries to catch its breath dealing with everything. And just as we draw breath in and out … morality ebbs and flows.



The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.


It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result.


But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.


—C.S. Lewis





The good news?

Just as with breathing … morality keeps going as long as we live.


That doesn’t mean we don’t have to catch our breath on occasion.

In addition it doesn’t mean we don’t have to assess our health on occasion.


And with this generation?


I think we need to assess … and rediscover our moral compass by actually embracing the ideals … not just some defined set of behaviors.


This is in no way an indictment on capitalism or to suggest that material wellbeing is not important and that morality cannot take place in businesses.


I say that because capitalism is as much about self-respect and integrity and dignity as it is about consumption.

It’s really not about what you can or cannot put on the dinner table but holding your head high.


I imagine we could all use a good dose of reminding that while we should be interested in rebuilding our wallets we should also be rebuilding our hearts <dreams>.


And this is relevant, and important, to business thinking.



In the end.


I am fairly sure Kurt Cobain didn’t speak any Latin. But I do believe he would have agreed that “corruptio optimi pessima” is the biggest crime to society.


That these ‘latro thesauri’ … or thieves of the treasure … are the true criminals to ethical & moral behavior today.


Is it up to the youth to challenge corruption? Whew. I hope it is not solely their responsibility. But I will admit that my generation certainly has not embraced that responsibility … therefore … maybe we do need fresh faces to take this on.



Maybe we should honor the young with this title …. ‘custos thesauri’  … making them the ‘keeper, or guardian, of the treasure’.




If ‘teaching ethical behavior’ helps businesses be better and do better … well … it cannot hurt.

So go do it.


But.hero be your own


Teaching is not empowering.


Empowering would be to make everyone be a ‘custos thesauri.’


Because, whether we like it or not, all of us are guardians of this particular treasure.


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Written by Bruce