Call the Mission: A Lesson In Ethical Leadership with a Nod to Dan Ariely

With breaches of ethics shaking the foundations of our global economy, and leading institutions failing to act in the interests of peace, justice, the environment, and prosperity, what can we learn from behavioral economists?  And how do we keep our country more honest?


In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely’s exuberant and enlightening book, he describes studies to support his thesis that "when we get into situations when our personal financial benefit stands in opposition to our moral standards, we are able to ‘bend’ reality, see the world in terms compatible with our selfish interest, and become dishonest."  Ariely believes that "if we recognize this weakness, we can try to avoid such situations from the outset."


For example, in one study, people were less likely to cheat if they are asked to recall the Ten Commandments just before the moment of opportunity to stray into dishonesty.  "What especially impressed me," explains Ariely, "was that the students who could remember only one or two Commandments were as affected by them as the students who remembered all ten.  This indicated that it was not the Commandments themselves that encouraged honesty, but the mere contemplation of a moral benchmark of some kind."  So, suggests Ariely, "then we could also use nonreligious benchmarks to raise the general level of honesty." 


Ariely believes that "there are tools, methods, and policies that can help us make better decisions."  Further, he suggests, although we make mistakes, we learn from them and we can improve ourselves.


So, Ariely asks "How do we keep our country more honest?"


My recommendation:  Call the mission. 


In my consulting and training work with nonprofit boards of directors, it is unfortunate to sometimes see personalities and politics interfere with people’s supposed better intentions to serve the vital work of the organization.


Conditions improve, however, under three conditions:

  1. When the board leader calls the mission at every meeting, reminding people why they are there – reminding people how the organization is and will make the world a better place – and even showing some evidence of that in a meaningful way
  2. When the board has a clear and very conscious understanding of its role and responsibilities and how it adds value in advancing the organization
  3. When the board establishes "tools and methods," including policies on conflicts of interest, statements of expectations and systems of accountability, and effective governing practices

Under those three circumstances, nonprofit boards are much more productive.


The classic movie Twelve Angry Men is a murder trial drama that has always reminded me of a board room scene.  The entire movie takes place in the jury room with the jurors deliberating on the guilt or innocence of a young teenage boy, who will be sentenced to the electric chair, a mandatory sentence if the jury convicts him.  After a long, strenuous screaming brawl among twelve angry men (yes, all men in 1957) who are eager to convict the defendant so they can be done and go home – one juror in particular so that he can get to a ball game - another juror stands firm to interrupt the screaming.  He states that he is an immigrant, that he has always respected the American jury trial system, that the twelve men were called to judge a teenager’s life who is on trial for murder, and that surely this young man deserves their time and attention to give this decision their full consideration.  The juror called the mission.


The lesson:  Perhaps we don’t have to recite the Ten Commandments at every meeting.  But we do need to call the mission when we participate in organizations – whether for-profits or public institutions - that affect the welfare of other people and our communities.


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  • Krishna Rao Vijayanagar

    Very nicely written piece on a subject I have seen in close quarters. Honesty or rather dishonesty is common place in all spheres of life. From jumping a red light to taking home some stationary from office to printing personal documents in office all adds up one by one to result in a huge meltdown.

    In my opinion I would go with the responsibility factor to rope in all these ethical dilemmas. Tell your team how much your budget is; show them how much is being printed on the customer's tab and for what purposes; show videos of how redlight-jumpers disrupt the traffic scenario; on how they cause the already stressed out beat-cop to lose his cool and vent his anger on some other innocent soul (not uncommon) ! Bringing about a sense of social responsibility and ownership will automatically lead to a self regulating organism. This may be worth trying.

    Krishna Rao Vijayanagar
    Graduate Student,
    Illinois Institute of Technology