Is Corruption the New Normal?
We need more servant leaders, who realize that prioritizing societal good actually creates more profits.
Our most prestigious universities, and many of our wealthy elite, are busted in a massive admissions scheme liberally sprinkled with bribery and fraud, and the most shocking thing about it is that people aren’t particularly shocked by it. What does it mean when our most admired and famous business leaders are people like Steve Jobs, who regularly parked in handicapped spaces; Mark Zuckerberg, who famously said the way to live life is to be legal without being ethical; and Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote books about positive leadership, but in practice prioritized profits over data privacy and the good of society? How did we get to a point where our political leaders value demonizing their opponents over working toward the common good, where three-fourths of Americans report that our country’s moral values are declining, where an increasing minority of us believe actions like cheating on our spouses can be considered ethical, and where children report cheating in record numbers (because, in their own words, everyone does it and it’s the fastest way to the top)? And how did we get to a point where we consider all of this normal?
Many explanations have been floated for our growing lack of attention to morality and basic human decency. One of the more convincing relates to how we educate our new leaders, and what we expect them to be. Young political leaders are taught to amass power and prestige; young business leaders are taught to prioritize efficiencies and profitability; young educational leaders are taught to value abstract test scores and bureaucratic conformance. Too frequently, schools of higher education have taught leaders they need not serve society, but instead serve their stockholders, bosses or themselves. As celebrated academics eloquently put it on the opening page of the Harvard Business School’s Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, “What kinds of leaders are these institutions developing that have caused so much hardship for so many?”
If leaders are to work for the betterment of society, we’ve developed a strange way of teaching leadership. The science of leadership has historically been either hostile or ambivalent to leadership ethics. This may be partly due to its origins. In the early 20th century the first theory on leadership emerged from sociological and political research on how to amass and maintain power. This progressed to studies meant to maximize factory workers’ effectiveness. In 1970, economist Milton Friedman argued a business’s only responsibility was to maximize profit, and any type of corporate social responsibility was a dangerous distraction. Consensus emerged in the ’80s and ’90s around a model called “transformational leadership,” which didn’t include morality: the successful transformational leader accomplished an organization’s objectives, without regard for the overall impact on customers, communities, or in some cases even followers. From this body of knowledge, leadership professors and consultants built their curricula and lessons— the curricula and lessons with which our current leaders were trained. Is it any surprise there was little mention of or concern for matters of ethics
In the wake of the early 21st century’s many publicized corporate scandals, the public’s interest in servant leadership was reawakened. Greenleaf’s work was revived by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who demonstrated that servant leadership could not only enhance societal outcomes like volunteerism, but could also boost employee performance beyond the more goal-focused transformational leadership. That same year, a separate study found that CEO emphasis on all stakeholder values positively predicted firm growth and Return on Investment (ROI), whereas CEO emphasis only on profitability did not. These studies, among others, launched a new wave of research exploring a seemingly paradoxical effect: Beyond positively impacting employees and communities, leadership prioritizing societal good actually creates more profits than leadership that prioritizes profit.
Some leadership scholars still claim moral leadership models do not work in the real world. But a recent review of nearly 300 published studies not only found moral approaches to leadership, such as servant leadership, are consistent positive predictors of performance and employee motivation, engagement and creativity, but they also often surpass the effects of traditional leadership.
As this evidence grows, leadership programs and curricula are evolving, promising better times ahead. But old habits are hard to break. Recently, the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership sent copies of Greenleaf’s foundational servant leadership essay to every member of the United States Congress; none of them responded. If those we elect to our highest offices struggle with the concept of serving others through their leadership, is it any wonder that so many of the powerful in America seem more interested in retaining their lofty positions, rather than helping others achieve similar success? Leaders must be prepared to question their assumptions and reconsider how to best serve their employers, followers, and society in general. Those of us who are not leaders must hold those who lead to higher standards.
Otherwise, the admissions scandal shows what our “new normal” looks like.
Richard R. Pieper, Sr., Trustee Emeritus Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership; Past Chairman Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership; Past President Character.org (CEP); American Patriot of Character Awardee
James Lemoine, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Management, University of Buffalo, trustee and Greenleaf Scholar at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership