What Are We Doing Today to Prevent Our Company’s Next Ethical Disaster?

By David De Cremer

Imagine that you are walking past a restaurant where you clearly see that the condition of the electric wiring in the kitchen is posing a serious threat to the safety of the people inside. It is clear to you that it does not take much for a fire to break out. Convinced about your assessment, you run into the restaurant and try to persuade people to leave the restaurant. You tell them that this is needed to protect their future health and survival. What will be the response? Most likely people will look at you in a bewildered way and think you have lost all your intellectual abilities. In other words, will they consider you to be a leader, no, likely they will think you are a “zero” not a “hero”. Ok, let us do this thinking exercise again but now imagine that, in a parallel universe, you are walking past the same restaurant again. But this time, a fire has now broken out in the kitchen and people eating there are under severe threat. Imagine you run in and save several people from the fire. What will be their response now? Most likely they will look at you as a leader. Yes, you are not a “zero”, now, you are a “hero”.

What this thinking exercise tells us is that as humans we do not easily recognize the need for heroes when nothing has gone wrong yet. However, when things do go wrong, we all want heroes to rise to the occasion. A similar process happens when it comes down to the emergence of and the need for responsible leadership in business. Specifically, when decisions are being made but no clear data are available regarding potential negative consequences that could emerge, responsible leadership seems not to be around. But, if the data does come in showing that things have badly gone wrong, the need for responsible leaders suddenly is very much present. Consider the following examples:

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About the Author

David De Cremer is the Provost chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, an honorary fellow at the University of Cambridge, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed professor in management studies at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is the founder and director of the Center on AI Technology for Humankind at NUS Business School and a fellow of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science. He has published more than 250 academic articles and book chapters and is the author of the books “Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker” and “Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity”.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.