Joseph L. Badaracco: An interview by Bob Morris

BadaroccoJoseph L. Badaracco is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. He has taught courses on business ethics, strategy, and management in the School’s MBA and executive programs. Badaracco is a graduate of St. Louis University, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA and a DBA. Badaracco serves on the Faculty Committee of the Harvard Center for Ethics and the Professions, and he is also the faculty chair of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo. In recent years, Professor Badaracco served as Chair of the MBA Program and as Housemaster of Currier House in Harvard College. He has also been chairman of the Harvard University Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and has served on the boards of two public companies. Badaracco has taught in executive programs in the United States, Japan, and many other countries and has spoken to a wide variety of organizations on issues of leadership, values, and ethics.

Badaracco’s current research focuses on the practical challenges facing responsible leaders in fluid, highly uncertain, intensely competitive environments. He has written several books on leadership, decision-making, and responsibility. These include Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose between Right and Right, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, and Questions of Character. These books have been translated into ten languages. His latest, The Good Struggle: Responsible Leadership in an Unforgiving World, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (October 2013)

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Good Struggle?

Badaracco: in an important respect, I started about 10 years ago, when I was rated another book. That book focused on lessons about leadership based on classic works of fiction and, in the process of writing it, I started thinking about the importance of struggle. Fiction let’s readers look inside the minds and hearts of leaders while they are working and making hard decisions and then trying to implement them. And what you see are the many ways in which these leaders struggle. I think that’s what put the basic idea for this book in my mind.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Badaracco: The closest I came to one of these revelations was seeing how, for some very successful entrepreneurs, the early, hard years of struggle were often, when they looked back at their lives and careers, the most valuable and rewarding periods. That’s a remarkable statement that merits, I think, serious reflection.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Badaracco: Originally, I planned to write about responsible leadership in small, new businesses – since so much of what’s been written in business ethics focuses on large, established companies. I broaden my focus, in large part, because of the financial crisis in 2008. It made transparently clear what had already been fairly apparent: that no organization was immune to intense competitive pressure and the risk of extinction. In other words, managers almost everywhere face the same challenge that entrepreneurs deal with daily – high uncertainty, intense performance pressure, and a volatile, dangerous environment.

Morris: In your opinion, is doing business ethically today more difficult, less difficult, or about the same as it was (let’s say) fifteen years ago, in 1998? Please explain.

Badaracco: It’s always been difficult to lead ethically, but I think the challenge, in all likelihood, is tougher now. So much of the world is now intensely competitive, and that becomes an incentive to cut corners or worse. And many people believe or know that, if they don’t make their numbers, they could well be out on the street. There is also complexity everywhere – organizationally, technologically, legally, and so forth – which creates lots of opportunities for scoundrels to do things they shouldn’t and hide what they’ve done. Finally, I think that some traditional monitors cannot function as effectively as they once did, because markets and competition and technology are changing so swiftly. This means regulations often lag reality and even board of directors have real difficulty doing their jobs.

Morris: As you already know, Dante reserved the last – and worst – ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. What are your own thoughts about such behavior as when Kitty Genovese’s neighbors in Kew Gardens (in 1964) remained in their apartments and turned off the lights when she screamed for help while being stabbed to death in the street below?

Badaracco: As I understand it, recent research has shown that the original version of the Kitty Genovese he story simply isn’t so. It seems that, at most, there was only a tiny handful of bystanders who didn’t do something and should have. But the problem of by standing is real and maybe growing worse. My impression is that intense performance pressure, a never-ending flow of work, and reluctance to make judgments about other’s complicated activities, that you might not really understand, can all become reasons or rationalizations for not asking questions or doing more when a situation actually calls for it.

Morris: Are some people born with a “moral compass” or can it be developed?

Badaracco: My sense is that a tiny fraction of people, as a result of genetics or early life experience, which is quite often abusive experience, simply don’t have much of a moral compass. The vast majority of people, however, do have a good sense of what is right and wrong and want to do what is right and feel that behaving this way is an important part of their identity. So that’s the good news. Unfortunately, to a much greater degree than we want to believe or accept, we are creatures of the environment and incentives and pressures around us, and that makes all of us, except for a handful of saints, vulnerable to falling short sometimes far short, of the standards that we want to meet and that others expect us to meet.

Morris: While re-reading The Good Struggle, I was again reminded of how important it is for children to understand and hopefully embrace – as soon as possible and appropriate — several of the values that you affirm. My own opinion is that this will help to prepare them for struggles now as well as for others that await them in months and years to come. What do you think?

Badaracco: I hadn’t thought about this angle on what I wrote, but I like your question and agree with you. Our children will enter a world in which turbulence and uncertainty may be quite common. Values like clarity about what is really going on in a situation, and what I called third rail-rules (i.e. lines that a person will not cross), could be especially valuable when everything is swirling around someone.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your book, you devote a great deal of thoughtful attention to commitment. Here’s my question: in your opinion, by what process should a commitment be formulated?

Badaracco: It’s hard to be precise about this, but I think several issues matter. One is that a commitment should have real, deep roots in a person’s life and experience. Another is that they have thought vividly, imaginatively, and practically about what it will mean to make a particular commitment. And another is to avoid solipsism: in other words, the best commitments are about and for [begin italics] other people [end italics].

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: How best to sustain a commitment, once made?

Badaracco: Individuals have to answer this for themselves, but I think that several initiatives can be helpful. One is enlisting the power of habit and routine. If making good on a commitment involves doing certain things, then do them regularly and repeatedly. This forms grooves in our minds and can keep us moving forward. Another is making a commitment publicly, which creates expectations in others’ minds and, for many people, additional and valuable pressure to meet these expectations. And it may also help to have a vivid mental picture of what you are trying to achieve and how you want the world to be different for other people – because of whatever commitment you’ve made.

Morris: Please explain your reference to “the burden of freedom.”

Badaracco: Freedom means we have to make choices and that, in turn, often means saying we will do some things and not others. These paths not taken, when someone chooses, can involve real costs and regrets. Sometimes, there is no way around this, and that makes the burden of choice especially difficult. Even worse, the full consequences of many of the hard choices managers make just aren’t clear, because so much of the future is unknown and out of their control. Living with this uncertainty is another burden.

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Joe cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His HBS faculty page link

His Amazon page link

Harvard Business Review page link

Leadership and Business Management video

TAGs: Joseph L. Badaracco: An interview by Bob Morris, John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, St. Louis University, Oxford University, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Business School, Harvard Center for Ethics and the Professions, Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo, Currier House in Harvard College, Harvard University Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose between Right and Right, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, Questions of Character, The Good Struggle: Responsible Leadership in an Unforgiving World, Harvard Business Review Press

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