Tag Archives: morals

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Trading Places, and Today’s News – Some Saturday Musings about Values, Morals, Ethics

News item:
Dallas Police Department fires three officers:
Dallas Police Chief David Brown fired three officers Friday in cases involving alleged substance abuse, including one who police say drove while drunk and fired a weapon out of his car and another found to have misused prescription drugs.

News Item:
Parkland Memorial Hospital fired a social worker for complaining about pressure to break safety rules, a new lawsuit alleges.

New item: 
NFL Players Associaotion appealing punishments:
The NFL Players Association has filed a pair of grievances challenging the authority of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.
In the first, filed with arbitrator Shyam Das, the NFLPA argues that Goodell is prohibited from punishing players for any conduct prior to Aug. 4, when the current collective bargaining agreement took effect.
“In connection with entering into the 2011 CBA, the NFL released all players from conduct engaged in prior to the execution of the CBA, on August 4, 2011,” the grievance says.


(Warning:  I may ramble a bit in this post).

The Duke Brothers

Do you remember the movie Trading Places.  In the movie, the Duke brothers place a wager that they could turn a common criminal into an upstanding business success, and they could turn a fine-upstanding business success into a common criminal.  Here’s one Duke brother to the other (I think I’ve got the brothers speaking in the correct order):

Mortimer Duke to Randolph Duke:
I suppose you think Winthorpe… say if he were to lose his job, would resort to holding up people on the streets.

Randolph Duke to Mortimer Duke:
No, I don’t think that would be enough for Winthorpe.
We’d have to heap a little more misfortune on those narrow shoulders.
If he lost his job and his homeand his fiancée and his friends.
If he were somehow disgraced and arrested by the policeand thrown in jail, even.
Yes, I’m sure he’d take to crime like a fish to water.

By the way, it worked:  Billy Ray Valentine became the next Wall Street wonder, and Winthorpe took to crime pretty dramatically.

I occasionally think of this movie as I read the painful stories of the failures of our leaders, and our institutions.   Maybe life circumstances do lead some people to do wrong, criminal, evil deeds.  (Would you steal medicine for a son or daughter who desperately needed it, if that was the only way you could obtain it?)  But, as I remember from many years ago during a lawless riot in one inner city, one community leader put it this way:  “the poor must be moral too.”  And the rich, I might add.  And everyone else.

I just presented a book synopsis of the recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.  A theologian in Germany at the rise of Hitler, Bonhoeffer was “martyred” for his part in a failed attempt to kill Hitler (yes, he played a part in the Valkyrie plot).  He was “sent to America” to continue his writing and his speaking in safety, (so that he could continue to have influence), but, he heard a higher ethical calling:

I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America.
I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. They may have been right in urging me to do so; but I was wrong in going.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany on the last steamer from America before the war, and ultimately was hanged just two weeks before his camp was liberated by the Americans — on what was certainly the direct order of Hitler himself.


A police officer really does need to live up to a high standard of moral and ethical behavior.  And I know, from experience with fine people involved, that the Dallas police Department takes seriously the ethical training of is leaders.  So the failure of even one hurts the entire organization (not to mention its reputation in the community).

When we have police officers who break the law, when we have superiors in a public hospital firing a social worker for standing up for what is right, when we have a player’s union asking for penalties to be overturned because the rules were not in effect yet (as though doing the right thing is dependent on the way the rules are written)… I think it is safe to say that there is an ethical vacuum throughout our society.

A fine MBA teacher who attends our First Friday Book Synopsis reminds me that this is not new.  This problem is as old as time itself, and no one has found a way to change human nature enough to change such a dark reality.

We could recite the ideas and proposed remedies:  more training in ethics, more oversight, and regulation, and coaching, and mentoring, and better discipline, and…

But here is at least one thing to think about.  Organizations are shaped, in very real ways, in the image of its top leader.  And the more that a top leader sets a clear vision, with an unblinking focus, the more chance that organization has to be shaped in the direction of that vision and focus.

And the more that an organization thinks that that such ethical matters will take care of themselves, the more that an organization decides that an occasional “cya” seminar on ethics is the approach to take to “solve” its ethical issue, the further the organization will fall away from a genuine and lasting ethical core.

In What Matters Now, Gary Hamel writes:

Values (matter now)  :
As trust has waned, the regulatory burden on business has grown. Reversing these trends will require nothing less than a moral renaissance in business.

“A moral renaissance in business.”  This implies that there was once a golden age in business, an age of good morals, an age of less greed, less skirting of the rules and boundaries of ethical concerns.

If only.

But I do think this.  We need a pretty serious effort by the genuine leaders, the ones at the top, to tackle this ongoing, multi-generational/multi-century crisis. With all of their vigor and vision and focus.

If anything trumps morals, ethics, values in an organization, it is a time for a new leader.  And until we get genuinely moral leaders, we will continue to read story after story of moral failure.