Tones at the Top: Governor Christie and Pope Francis

By Ethics Exchange posted Jan 15,2014 10:00


Jeff Kaplan: Steve, you live in a state – Illinois – which is noted for the ethical challenges of its government, and, as a long-time New Jersey resident, so do I.   For the past few days, a NJ ethics story – concerning the horrific traffic jam that was created by Governor Christie’s office to punish a mayor who had declined to support the governor politically - has grabbed national headlines.  Putting aside the issues of geographic ethical culture that the case raises, are there any lessons here with respect to organizational culture?

Steve Priest: But we could have so much fun arguing about whether Illinois, New Jersey or Louisiana is the most corrupt-an honor that I am sure each state would love to win. Of course as Jon Stewart pointed out, only in New Jersey does the state seal include the decapitated head of a horse.

Jeff:   The very week I moved here in 1987 the chief of the police of my new town was carted off to prison for, as I recall, corruption. So, my expectations have always been low.  But enough small talk, what do you think of the case?

Steve: Even though the whole story is yet to be told, and even though it solely involves political cultures (a governor’s office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), I think it reinforces the most popular cliché in our field: It is all about tone at the top.

Jeff:  Agreed that, as a general matter, nothing matters more than tone at the top. And, risk assessment aficionado that I am, I’d go further and say that it is not enough to have good tone generally, but those at the top need to consider particular E&C risks that in their organization that are potentially most top-relevant.

For instance, in the Governor’s case clearly there was a risk of bullying that needed attention at the top.  Of course, some degree of pushiness has always been part of the political process, and not always for the worse.  Case in point – Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. But, one can obviously take this sort of thing too far.  And from some of the stories coming out of NJ beyond that of the GW Bridge, it is clear that bullying was a risk in the Governor’s office  - one which he, as the top, should have done more to address.  (And that assumes he is innocent of actual involvement. If he isn’t – the tone is the least of his problems.)

Steve: I actually am not a “true believer” when it comes to the importance of tone at the top. It can undermine the reality that individuals who are not at the top have values and consciences of their own, and ultimately are responsible for their own decisions and actions regardless of what those few at the top say or do. However, it would be challenging to be in an organization where bullying was celebrated—Gov. Christie had someone trail him with a video camera to memorialize and publicize his tough guy encounters with the public—and not feel like this kind of behavior was the norm.

Similarly (or oppositely), acts of humility and humanity by a new Pope are reverberating through the Vatican and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. As much as I love watching the train wreck going on in New Jersey, I love seeing the impact that one 77 year old sinner is making around the world even more. Tone at the top matters, for good or bad.

Jeff:  I’m totally with you on the Pope, for whom I have great admiration.  Indeed, while religious organizations face different challenges than do business and political ones, all leaders in my view should learn from his extraordinary humility (as well as humanity).   Along these lines, one of the greatest of judges our country has ever had – Learned Hand – said many years ago that the “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”  More recently, various behavioral ethics experiments have shown that with power frequently comes the mistaken assurance that one can do no wrong. For me, all of this factors heavily into tone at the top.

Steve: I will only argue with your statement that the Vatican is a religious organization, not a business or a political one. It is, historically and currently, all three, making the role of the Pope perhaps even more complex than that of a corporate CEO or Governor of New Jersey.  But back to tone at the top. One mistake CEOs often make is believing if they say the right words, they are exhibiting good tone at the top. In the case of Governor Christie and Pope Francis, it is evident that words do matter. But actions matter even more, as hundreds of employees have told me in focus groups over the years. While people have been moved by the words of the Pope, they are more impressed by him giving up traditional perks and reaching out to embrace people who are suffering. The true and ongoing test for both Gov. Christie and Pope Francis is whether the tone exhibited by their actions reflects and reinforces their beliefs and priorities. Or, in the words of the man from whom Pope Francis took his papal name: “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”