Leadership Ethics on Trial in Virginia

By Tom Davidson

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted last week of public corruption charges, and both parties face substantial prison terms when sentenced in January. The story highlights the often blurry lines between what’s moral, legal and ethical, an ambiguous realm that all new supervisors (and experienced leaders) should be clear about before stepping onto any slippery slopes.

The couple’s soap opera like trial surrounded the their seamy relationship with businessman Jonnie Williams, and it revealed sad truths about the couple’s poor marriage and financial troubles. Wealthy businessman, Williams admitted to currying favor with the governor and his wife with gifts and loans “to the family,” thus avoiding legal pitfalls for a time. But the scheming began to unravel after a disgruntled chef revealed some of the shady dealings, beginning with Williams paying for portions of their daughter’s wedding.

While no concrete tit-for-tat arrangements were concretely evidenced, prosecutors painted a clear picture of patterns wherein the governor provided unusual access and advocacy for Williams (i.e., a promised “loan,” a phone call to policy makers, plane trips, shopping sprees, a Rolex watch, and a high-profile meeting). The pattern was enough for the jury to label the conduct (and the cover-up) as criminal, and the rest is a sad chapter in Virginia history.

What everyday leaders can learn
Convicted white-collar criminal turned ethics teacher and speaker Chuck Gallagher offers valuable insight for everyday leaders. He says that it takes three factors for someone to enter into a continuum of unethical conduct, and no one is really immune. The three factors are: need, opportunity, and rationalization.

Need. In the McDonnell’s case, the apparent need was for money and the accouterments of success that were expected of someone with the couple’s stature. Everyday leaders may perceive similar needs for money, status, office supplies, upward mobility, or favors. One should always question whether they have an actual need or if they have a perceived need that is being exaggerated or can be satisfied by legitimate means.

Opportunity. In their unique position of power, the McDonnells certainly had the opportunity to use their status to some advantage. Could they influence others on behalf of someone providing them favors? Could they accept gifts to the family under the law without criminal prosecution? Could they find people to pay for their debts? Yes, they could. What opportunity exists in your leadership position that, if you chose to, you could take advantage of? Without opportunity, you are less likely to fall victim to the slippery slope, but with it, you are that much closer to trouble.

Rationalization. The third component in Gallagher’s principles is the presence of rationalization, giving one’s self a reason that makes the behavior fair, reasonable and palatable when in reality it is none of these. Theft of food in a restaurant or grocery store is often rationalized by employees as “only fair” because they make little pay otherwise. A manager who works hard may take advantage of their autonomy to “make up for” their challenging work schedule by going home early without permission. Those in a position of political power may rationalize that their “small” indiscretions are made up for by the “greater good” that they do for others.

As a leader, you have a degree of inherent power, autonomy and influence that puts you in a position to make decisions that could lead to unethical behavior and unsavory outcomes. To avoid this, ask yourself the following questions to stay on the right side of ethical ambiguity:

  • Is this something I really need, or am I blowing this out of proportion?
  • While I know I could do this, is it in the best interest of all concerned?
  • Am I rationalizing or using objective reasons for my behavior?
  • What if my actions appeared on the front page of the newspaper?

The sad case of Governor and Mrs. McDonnell is a wake-up call for Virginia legislators, but it should also be a stark reminder to everyday leaders that their position of authority does not excuse them from Gallagher’s principles. Apply them to yourself and stay out of trouble (and the headlines).

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