Saturday, April 25, 2009

Harvard on Susan Boyle and Other Moral Dilemmas

The Susan Boyle phenomenon has reached Harvard.

...there's something else Susan Boyle awakens in us as we watch her come out of her shell. Our own selves. Who among us doesn't move through life with the hidden sense, maybe even quiet desperation, that we are destined for more? That underneath our ordinary exterior lies an extraordinary talent? That given the right opportunity, the right stage, the right audience, we could shine as the stars we truly are?

We all have that sense to one degree or another. And it's a great opportunity for managers. How we handle that opportunity is what distinguishes the great managers from the merely good ones.

Good managers help their employees succeed in whatever role they happen to be in. Great managers see the unique talents of each employee, and then create the role that's a perfect vehicle for those talents. Great managers remove the obstacles that prevent their employees from unleashing their talent. And they make sure each employee has the right opportunities, the right stage, the right audience, to be fully appreciated.

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Another post by a different contributor looks at Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith, a career school teacher whose teaching gifts are to education what Susan Boyle's voice is to music. (Andrea Ovans explains "The title is a reference to the time he was so intent on explaining a chemistry experiment to a curious fifth grader that he didn't notice that the Bunsen burner had set his bangs ablaze.")

The post caught my eye by this.

...he's adapted a framework from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called the Six Levels of Moral Development. In some ways, Esquith's formulation is more useful, translated as it has been into something a fifth-grader can relate to. Here's Esquith's channeling of Kohlberg:

  • Level 1: "I don't want to get in trouble."
  • Level 2: "I want a reward"
  • Level 3: "I want to please someone"
  • Level 4: "I follow the rules"
  • Level 5: "I am considerate of other people"
  • Level 6: "I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it"

Not all of his students reach level 6--which is also known as the "Atticus Finch Moral Compass" level--but they do make it up to level 5. And that's mainly because Esquith has stopped giving his kids incentives to remain at the other levels.

He has not set up a stick (level 1) and carrot (level 2) reward system. He discourages the kids from doing their work to please their parents or for him (or some other charismatic boss). He actively encourages them to think, to question what rules are for. Far from making his young students into a bunch of subversives, this effort is the basis for getting them to see why anyone might benefit from reaching level 5, and why being considerate is clearly essential if they are going to reach a point where they can ask themselves "What would Atticus do?"

Questions follow suggesting that business schools might take another look at teaching morality
Last line: Either you're an ethical person or you're not. Is that true? Is it too late to become good if you're older than 10?.

Jesus as Atticus Finch.


While we're connecting dots, am I the only one who thinks the Atticus Finch Moral Compass might also be applied to business school graduate level courses as they prepare our best and brightest to enter the world of business?

This other dot is a big stretch, but the same lessons might apply in averting future moral dilemmas regarding torture and the like.

Sara Robinson's homily at Dave Neiwert's place ties these threads together as she takes Barack Obama to the woodshed. Readers are urged to read the whole piece, but here is the part I like best:

I don't have research on this, but I'm pretty sure that after eight years of the most lawless presidency in history, most of us had "restoring real accountability" fairly high up on the Hope and Change list when we cast our votes for Barack Obama. We were craving that even-handed, reasonable, cleansing moment—a season of transparency that would show us where we went wrong, let some air and light into the wounds, and allow us to begin to heal. He sounded for all the world like the kind of morally serious person who understands the difference between right and wrong—and between that kind of old-fashioned even-handed inquiry that simply finds what it finds and deals with miscreants without fear or favor, according to the demands of the law; and a partisan witch hunt that's conducted for no higher purpose than terrorizing your opponents into submission with naked displays of unchecked power. He seemed like just the guy to do it.

So the last thing we expected was to hear him warbling that same terrified-Democrat line, starting within days of his inauguration. Fortunately, as outrage over the torture memos spreads, both the President and Congressional Democrats seem to finding their moral feet again. And not a moment too soon, either—because if they blow this one, it's nothing short of the end of America as we know it.

When the administration says that "we're not looking backward" and "we're not out to assign blame or punish anyone," what it's really saying is that there no longer any real relationship between cause and effect in our government. The very idea of consequences has absolutely no meaning. If you have access to enough money and/or power, there is nothing you can say or do, no amount of money you can steal, no lie perfidious enough, no fraud brazen enough, no treason heinous enough, to get you so much as called up before a hearing to explain yourself.

And that's a truly frightening development. A government that cannot fairly, honestly, transparently hold people to account—where, in fact, nobody can apparently even imagine that such a thing might be possible—is by definition, no longer a government of laws, because the law depends on a strong relationship between cause and effect. When our leaders have so thoroughly internalized the idea that the only possible use of justice is to use government force to seize political advantage or economic power over other people, we've pretty much irrevocably passed the point where we are now a government of men. When even liberals resign themselves to those medieval conservative ideas about justice as our new national norm, they have failed the country—and we have ceased to be America.

The truth about consequences is this: There can be no restoration and reconciliation until people are reassured that the outcome will actually matter, that the real story will be told, and that people will be held accountable for their choices. They are also the very definition of justice, and the necessary precondition of freedom. The most important change we need right now is leaders with a quickening sense of liberal discipline—including the self-discipline and moral courage to stop looking the other way.

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