Life can be so unexpected. Two topics – neither at first glance what might be considered ‘contemporary’ or ‘cutting edge’ – seem to be acquiring a lot of column (and screen) inches: morality and Darwin. Darwin’s sudden high profile is, of course, due to the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of the Species. But morality? Why is this suddenly such a topic?

As so many things seem to have done recently, it probably started with a few bankers. What was striking about the appearance of Sir Fred Goodwin, Lord Stevenson, Sir Tom McKillop and Andy Harvey in front of the Treasury Select Committee was the media’s – and some of the Committee’s – interest in exactly how sorry they were. The Independent even gave them marks out of ten for contrition as the Committee had mutated unexpectedly into The Ex Factor in assessing these fallen giants. Obviously warming to the theme, less than a month later, the Prime Minister was calling ‘for morality in banking system’.

There certainly seems to be something in the air. Issue 05 of The Hedge, the magazine of the Hedge Fund Club, published early in 2009, contained the following quotes from ‘expert commentators in the financial community’ in terms of what they felt 2009 would have in store.

… I think there’s a return to different values. Unfortunately, when times are really great and money is king and people are earning bundles, very often good manners and modesty go out the window.”
Anthony Lassman, Editor-in-chief, Nota Bene

Top business schools have come to be dominated by finance and economics. A greed is goodmentality has been allowed to become the ultimate virtue. What has been lost in the process is the awareness that successful and sustainable capitalism depends not just on markets but on social relationships grounded in trust and what sociologists call social capital.”
Ken Starkey, Professor of Management and Organisational Learning, Nottingham University Business School

Weve had 15 years of excess, greed and irresponsibility. […] Old-fashioned virtues such as selling and hospitality or value for money – all that stuff disappeared. I see a return to more old-fashioned values.”
Richard Balfour-Lynn, CEO, MWB Group and Chairman, AHG

[As an aside, the number of references to ‘return’ and ‘old-fashioned’ there suggest that nostalgia for a mythical past – arguably an archetypal British trait – may also be making its own return to fashion. Where ‘retro’ has recently been ironic, it’s becoming more realistic, even if Heat is yet to run articles on darning or turnip growing. But have you seen the number of new ‘comfort eating’ cookbooks?]

What all this does suggest – apart from a shift of public and cultural mood that should come as little surprise – is that an important element of leadership is finding itself in the spotlight: awareness of the impact of behaviour on others. The importance of openness and honesty in communication – and our growing awareness of the role of ‘spin’ – were highlighted at the Treasury Select Committee, not least by the Chairman’s refreshingly direct question: “Are you expressing sympathy because your PR advisers advise you to do so?”

Interestingly, we seemed – even before the crunch – to be in an era where the high profile apology was becoming more prominent. Back in March 2008, Management Today ran an article called The art of apologising. Recognising that apologising was becoming a more widespread behaviour, possibly reflecting a greater taste for emotional openness, it also recognised that is more to it to just being nice:

And guess what, there may even be a business case for it. When a firm fouls up, the damage to its brand will certainly be less if there is a swift acceptance of responsibility and apology. It could even help in court: research by University of Illinois professor Jennifer Robbennolt discovered that 73% of legal plaintiffs settled the lawsuit when the defendant said sorry, compared to 52% of identical cases without an apology.”

What is perhaps equally interesting for any one concerned with the ongoing health of their relationships – working or social – is that a ‘real’ apology admits responsibility: to apologise effectively, we need to admit that we have behaving in a way that we realise is unacceptable for us as well as those who have been offended.

A modern reading of Darwin might -we can hope – enlighten us that ‘survival of the fittest’ is not a slogan for testosterone or a strapline for a Rambo movie, but that ‘fittest’ might equally mean ‘most suited to long term survival, including having respect for that and those on which we depend’. In 2008, New Scientist published 24 myths and misconceptions about evolution, including one – Evolution myths: Accepting evolution undermines morality – that makes this point clearly:

Natural selection can favour altruism and fair play in certain circumstances. Behaviours such as loyalty to kin, intolerance of theft and punishment of cheats – the roots of morality – can be seen in many of our primate cousins.”

If we live in a time of change – and humanity surely always does, although the pace certainly varies – we live in a time of evolution. Adapt and survive, to disinter an old cliché. We would hope that most organisations would have a set of values by which they would hope their staff would treat each other.

But one recent news item does suggest that more organisations might consider not just aiming to live by their ethical values, but making them public.

If your organisation is looking to its future recruitment, the following might give you pause for thought. It’s a quote from Dr John Dunford of the Association of Schools and College Leaders, to the Association’s annual conference in March 2009:

Young people who, until recently, headed straight from university to the City to make their fortune are questioning whether there is any moral purpose in that. Teaching, not accountancy or the City, will soon become the top destination for talented young graduates. It is already in the top three.”

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