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Choosing the High Road

February 2014

By Bob Shea

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Bruce Weinstein, the Ethics Guy, discusses his five principles of ethical intelligence that promote integrity in relationships—not just for leaders, but for everyone.

If you woke up with the flu, would you go to work anyway? Or would you stay home and rest, stay home and work, or go to work but isolate yourself?

This is a question often posed to audiences by Bruce Weinstein, author of Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond (New World Library, 2011). Also known as “the Ethics Guy,” Weinstein is the Leadership Series speaker at NACUBO’s five signature programs in 2014. In a recent telephone interview, Weinstein discussed how business officers might apply these principles.

Suppose a CEO comes to work with the flu because clients from around the world are scheduled to visit the company’s headquarters that day, and she doesn’t want to let them down.

“Her impulse is noble,” says Weinstein, “and it’s admirable that she values loyalty. But, by dragging herself in to work with the flu, she is probably passing her illness along to at least a few other people. It’s hard to see how that choice is consistent with ethically intelligent leadership.” That’s because this CEO “is violating the most fundamental ethical principle of all: Do no harm,” he explains.  

In his keynote presentations at NACUBO programs, Weinstein will show how the five principles of ethical intelligence are a reliable framework for making smart, responsible decisions in every aspect of life, whether on the job or in personal relationships. Those principles are:

Applying the Principles

Sometimes doing no harm means exercising restraint, but sometimes it means taking action to prevent harmful consequences to others.

“In some cases, we don’t know what the right thing to do is,” Weinstein says, “and in others, we know what is right but we’re afraid to do it. When you look at the scandals in the financial world of the past several years, there’s been as much coverage of the people who had to have known what was going on and did nothing about it, as there was coverage of the wrongdoers themselves. Courage is a concept that never goes out of style.”

But speaking out can come with a price. Weinstein notes that whistleblowers, like Enron executive Sherron Watkins, who reported corporate fraud, are often criticized for having the courage to stand up. “She ended up on the cover of Time magazine and is now a popular speaker across the country,” he says, “but she is more the exception than the rule. People who know that something wrong is going on within their organizations are often reluctant to speak up—understandably—because their jobs and reputations may be jeopardized, even if they themselves didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t easy for Watkins to take action, but she found the courage to do so.” 

A chief business officer at a college or university might need such courage to present an ethical issue, since he or she reports to a president, board members, and sometimes a provost as well. Equally challenging would be a situation in which a staff member knows that the chief financial officer is doing unethical or illegal things.

Perhaps a simple reminder helps. “After 9/11 in New York, we began seeing signs all over the subways and bus stops that said, ‘If you see something, say something,’” Weinstein recalls. “An empty duffel bag on a subway seat often, but not always, means that someone forgot their bag. The ‘see something, say something’ rule reminds us that we have to take things like an empty duffel bag seriously. We can also protect ourselves by alerting someone anonymously. 

“The same rule applies to members of NACUBO. If you suspect someone has done something unethical, speaking up doesn’t have to be accusatory. You can say something like, ‘I was wondering…’ and then mention what you observed. You’re not pointing fingers. You’re just describing what you have seen and asking for clarification.”

Smart business officers want staff members who will give them honest feedback. “It’s in your own financial interest to hire and promote people who will tell you things that you, as a chief business officer, need to hear,” Weinstein says. “If they don’t inform you about such situations, the problems can get worse, and you could end up with a catastrophe on your hands. Courageous people in your department are often the ones on the front lines who have the strength of character to alert you to dangers you might not know about.”

Relationships With Others

In his book, Weinstein applies the five principles to relationships with your colleagues, direct reports, bosses, and stakeholders in your organization. 

“Ethical intelligence comes down to one simple idea,” he says. “A life well lived is not all about you.

“Consider the troubling issue of anger. When you’re managing someone and they do something that angers you or disappoints you, it’s understandable to be upset and to want to vent. But, if you do that without regulating your anger, you might feel better in the short run, but are you really helping the other person? Are you helping the situation? The ethically intelligent life takes into account your responsibilities to others as well as to yourself.”

Treating others respectfully (the third principle) suggests the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But is that a good ethical touchstone for people to use?

“The Golden Rule would be useful if everybody wanted to be treated the same way,” Weinstein comments. “The problem is that that’s not always the case. Suppose you don’t like to receive compliments. If you followed the Golden Rule, you would refrain from complimenting others on the grounds that you ought to treat others the way you want to be treated (i.e., no compliments). But lots of people do like to be acknowledged when they do a good job, even if you might not. Thus, a modified version of the Golden Rule works best in diverse communities: Do unto others the way they want you to do unto them.

“Of course,” he adds, “there are limits to following even this version of the Golden Rule. If a client wants his accountant to underreport his income to the IRS, the accountant has not only a right but an obligation to refuse. The limits of the Golden Rule are one’s conscience and what I’m calling the fourth principle of ethical intelligence: Be fair.”

Weinstein notes that the principles of ethical intelligence are the foundation of religious and spiritual traditions around the world. “Consider the ‘Do no harm’ principle,” he says. “It’s hard to envision how any society could exist for very long if it didn’t have this principle as its foundation. People would be afraid to leave their homes, since they could be attacked at any time, and the wrongdoers wouldn’t be punished.”

But “Do no harm” takes us only so far. “Would you be doing your job as a chief business officer if all you did was avoid hurting people? What would any job amount to if its only requirement were ‘Do no harm’? This is where the second principle of ethical intelligence, ‘Make things better,’ comes into play.”  

NACUBO members apply this principle when they take measures to enrich the lives of investors and ultimately the student body. The ‘Make things better’ principle also takes us beyond the area of law, since no one is legally required to enrich the lives of others. “The law is important,” Weinstein emphasizes, “but ethics demands more of us.”

Speaking of investments, can you have a top-performing endowment that is ethically invested in socially responsible instruments?

“Investors in a college have an expanded set of objectives compared with investors in the business world,” says Weinstein. “If you invest in an educational institution, one goal is to get a return on your investment, but another goal is to advance the mission of the university—which is to create knowledgeable, educated, and ethical human beings who will contribute positively to society.

“The investor in a university has to think of both of these things: a return on the money as well as advancing the interests of the institution. That’s why it is the mandate of investors in college and universities to make ethical investments.”

The fourth principle, fairness, means giving to others their due. “Even though there is a lot of injustice and unfairness in the world,” Weinstein says, “that’s no reason for us to throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, that’s just how life is.’ This week I went to Denver to see a good friend of mine appointed to the Colorado State Supreme Court. Prominently displayed in the lobby of the building is a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ That is the best reason I can think of for NACUBO members to place the fourth principle of ethical intelligence front and center in all they do.”

Treating Yourself Ethically

The fifth principle of ethical intelligence calls upon us to care for one another and ourselves. “The business literature speaks about a ‘work-life balance,’” Weinstein says. “I don’t like this term, because it implies that you have your work on the one hand and your life on the other. But work is a part of life.” Still, he adds, the spirit of the phrase “work-life balance” is a good one. “Caring for yourself is an ethical responsibility. And it’s an essential component of leadership.”

Weinstein talks about applying the principles of ethical intelligence to oneself. In his book, he examines five issues related to “honoring your responsibilities to yourself as well as to others”: multitasking, using technology wisely, making healthy choices, dealing with anger, and responding appropriately to being downsized. 

Multitasking, in particular, could be an issue for many NACUBO members who are entrusted with broad portfolios and responsibility. How can they manage work of such complexity?

“The short answer is mindfulness,” says Weinstein. “Multitasking is a myth. There’s an emerging body of evidence that shows that the human brain can only monotask. What we’re doing when we multitask is actually switching from one task to another quickly. But in so doing, we’re not fully immersed in any one task for very long. And we therefore don’t complete it as well as we would if we were focusing on it.”    

Not Just for Leaders

Weinstein is disturbed that ethics—as it’s presented in the media—is inevitably linked to bad behavior. “That’s only part of the story with ethics,” he says. “I realize that attending a lecture on ethics is about as appealing to most people as having dental surgery. Both are things you might have to do but really don’t want to do. My mission is to help people see how the principles of ethics bring out the best in us. I work very hard at making my presentations inspirational and fun. Who says ethics has to be boring, or only about what you shouldn’t do?

“The five principles, as broad and basic as they are, are not a formula or a recipe for living,” he continues. “They require deliberation and judgment to make them work. And they’re not just for leaders. They’re for everyone. As I’ll show, they provide a solid, dependable framework, for making smart, responsible decisions in investment—and everywhere else, too.”

The good news, Weinstein concludes, is that living an ethically intelligent life isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do, too. “Taking the high road, is, in the long run, the best way to get the things you want most out of life.” 

BOB SHEA is the senior fellow for finance and campus management at NACUBO.

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