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The President-Elect Knows

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

What Donald Trump Can Teach Us About Ethics and Leadership

Ann Skeet

President-elect Donald Trump studies laws and codes, fines and punishments, and makes business decisions accordingly.  This kind of ethical fading—losing sight of when a decision is really about what is right or wrong versus how much it will cost you—is well studied by today’s behavioral ethicists.  It has become part of the American way of doing business. 

Anyone who has done a turn in corporate roles north of middle management recognizes that Trump uses classic business executive moves assembling his cabinet.  C-suite veterans have seen that when a corporate division head complains about another part of the business he may find himself in charge of it--like Rick Perry running the Energy department. In large companies, moving executives into positions where they have little or no applied experience to develop and test their leadership skills is common practice--like Ben Carson running HUD, or a philanthropist running the Department of Education. 

Ironically, and unfortunately, Trump is schooling citizens, congress and businesspeople on a practice that is fundamental to providing ethical leadership. What practice does Trump grasp that others miss?  Leaders have a responsibility to represent the correct interests their formal role demands of them. A shorthand way to characterize this practice is that leaders need to play their position.  When a person is CEO, she is measured against mission and goals.  But the same person serving in a corporate board seat, for-profit or not, has different obligations and tasks—decisions are made collectively for starters, not by individuals, and the interests are those of the entity itself, not the management team.

Trump gets this. I hear many say he doesn’t know what he is doing as he makes appointments and plays cat and mouse over his business entanglements and what he will do with them.  But he knows.  What his moves help us see is how many people are currently in leadership positions where they don’t understand their responsibilities and/or have not acted on them--a failure to provide ethical leadership. 

Trump also understands that ethics—doing the right thing in search of the good life—and compliance—following the rules and minimizing punishment when you don’t—are fundamentally different goals.  American business leaders, regulators and legislators have allowed compliance to substitute for ethics long enough that many can’t tell the difference between them.  Trump is making those differences clear.

The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code (of which I am a member) says: “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”  Issues of accuracy and fairness have been debated before and since the election.  Less critique has been offered about thoroughness.  Trump knows there is no conflict of interest law applicable to the President but I don’t recall reading about that before the election.  And, what about the emoluments clause?  That gem was not explored in advance of the election in spite of the fact that each candidate’s presidency might require a closer look at it. Reporting in advance of the election on either issue, particularly in light of Trump’s choice to withhold his tax information, might have informed voters more completely.

And Congress?  Trump is exploiting their faulty law making at every turn. While campaigning, he noted with pride that he used “the system” in reference to the tax code.  Since his election, he is calling the question of whether Congress will use the powers they have to provide checks and balances to the executive branch.  Rex Tillerson’s appointment might well be Trump’s canary in the coalmine of congressional response to business conflicts of interest.  Will Congress do its job on Tillerson’s nomination? Republicans learned with the opening of this congressional session, citizens are paying attention to ethics along with business investors and regulators.

Trump has done business for years in a world regulated by sentencing guidelines, defined punishments corporations face if found guilty of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for example.  Lawyers know well the fines companies found guilty of specific violations must pay. What is considered best compliance practice is seen as equal to paying the lowest fine possible if companies break a law and are caught.  Good business perhaps, but not ethics.

Trump ran on his claim that he knows how to get things done.  He can argue that he has a mandate to apply such knowledge to running the country.  If he does, we are going to learn that the best business decision does not always equate to the most ethical one. We might learn the hard way because too many people we want to think of as leaders failed to play their position.

Ann Skeet is the director of the Leadership Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Jan 6, 2017

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