Volkswagen’s misconduct reminds me of the importance of keeping ethical dilemmas and questions about virtues and right morality in the forefront of our minds. The more corrupt the environment the more vital it is to have clarity in our own heads and hearts about our own values, responsibilities and behaviours. It is vital to be conscious and honest about how we see the world.If we believe that the world is dangerous, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous then we are driven by our fears and our survival instincts. This world view focuses on winning and justifies cutting corners, cheating and telling lies.
If we believe that the Earth is our home, that we share this address with a few billion other human beings then we develop a sense of connectedness to others and a responsibility for our environment. We start seeing examples of virtuous behaviour, unity, care and agility around us. With this mindset we focus on what is good in the world and use our energy and creativity to make improvements to support the well-being of all.
It is easy to condemn and project our frustration and disappointment onto the car manufacturer. They let us down and deliberately cheated not only us but our already troubled and fragile environment as well. Some of you who read Jeremy Clarkson’s views on this matter in the Sunday Times on the 27th of September might agree with him and suggest that cheating is not a big deal, (according to Clarkson we all do it) “so stop tutting and chuckle at VW instead”. He believes that cheating is part of life and VW was just unlucky because it was caught “with its trousers down”.
It is easy both to condemn and to dismiss the world’s biggest car manufacturer’s deliberate act of rigging emissions tests in its diesel cars. The disaster VW finds itself in looks as murky as the scandals that stained the reputation of the banking industry. By installing ‘defeat device‘ software into its VW and Audi diesel cars to deliberately fool testers into thinking they polluted far less than they do, has wiped £22bn from the company’s value in a few days.
Trust has been lost on different levels and it is too soon to tell whether Volkswagen can ever regain its past good reputation.
Who is responsible for such a colossal mistake? Was it only a handful of individuals who invented a software and decided to install it into 11 million vehicles without authorisation? Or was the cheating part of the overall, secret strategy agreed by senior position holders to support financial gains and enhance the company’s global position? There is no point speculating. Volkswagen promised to do a thorough investigation and time will tell what shall be revealed and what information will get into the public domain about the cheating, the lies and the failure of leadership.We could consider the various position holders at VW and analyse how well or not they demonstrated leadership. However, I find it much more meaningful if we take this case as an opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination. How well do we measure up? Do we cut corners and focus mainly on our own survival, our personal gain and advantage? Do we take responsibility for our actions and the actions of colleagues around us? Do we appreciate the contribution of others and help them grow? When we make decisions do we consider the wellbeing of all (even if we do not know them personally)? Do we think about the long-term impact of our actions on the environment and on the life of future generations?
A lot will change in Volkswagen in the months and years to come. It is important to remember that change does not happen in the abstract. Lasting change requests a new outlook and personal commitment to a different kind of behaviour. I propose that we can change when we have our own insight through experiences, questions and reflection. When we understand why the behavioural change is important for us personally. If we want lasting change we need to change our mindset and align our beliefs to the new behaviour. We need to master the new behaviour and own it by generating a personal version of the knowledge and apply it habitually. We are ready to help the change process of others only when we embody and live the new behaviour.The search for good leaders, the desire for personal wellbeing, the search for meaning and how to live a good life have been with us throughout the ages. The wisdom traditions give us clear guidance on how to live and lead well. Aristotle for example defines virtues as conscious habits that we do. We learn them through education and role models and when we continuously practice them they become an integral part of who we are (Aristotle, Nichomachean ethics, Bk. 2.5). His ideas from 2,500 years ago resonate well with the neuroscience supported process of successful behavioural change.
Trusted leaders are the guardians of the values of the organisation. They release the energy of people and enlarge the human and intellectual capital of the employees. In a trusting environment when we are committed to our shared purpose we play active roles both as leaders and as followers. Authentic leaders know themselves and this helps them to be effective and moral (Walumbwa et al. 2008) and lead by example.
There is growing evidence that the materialistic model of mainstream business does not produce true wellbeing for people and actually undermines wellbeing. “Outmoded mental models have produced an intellectual bankruptcy: the bankruptcy of mainstream economic thought“(Scharmer, O. Kaufer, K. 2013. p. 11). By advocating economic action on the basis of money-making, and by justifying success in terms of profits made, the materialistic business model encourages the irresponsible behaviour of economic actors, contributes to ecological destruction and disregards the interests of future generations. The presupposed and still widely used ‘rational management model’ is in fact highly irrational if it produces non-rational outcomes for society, nature and future generations. What we observe is a disconnect between reality and awareness: between an eco-system-centric global economy and an ego-centric awareness of institutional decision makers.
Unless we take personal responsibility and develop a character that habitually follows ethical behaviour, unless we find the courage to continuously remind others of our connectedness and collective responsibility for considering the wellbeing of others, we do not have the moral right either to condemn or to support the cheaters of the world.
Scharmer, O. and Kaufer, K. 2013. Leading from the Emerging Future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco
Walumbwa, F.O, Avolio, B.J., Gardner, W.L., Wernsing, T.S. and Peterson, S.J. 2008. Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory based Measure. Journal of Management 34 (1): 89-126
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